Friday, November 19, 2010

Harvard vs. Yale

1909, 1913 & 1927

Bloomberg News reports that the “deafening drone of vuvuzelas” won’t be heard at the 127th football game between Harvard and Yale this weekend. Harvard banned the plastic horns in order to avoid unduly disturbing the players, marching band, and fans. “Even if we can’t bring them into the stadium, the biggest part of the Harvard-Yale game, at least for the students there, is the tailgate,” rationalized a Yale freshmen. “At least we’ll have them there.”

As writer Elbert Hubbard once observed, football is “a sport that bears the same relation to education that bullfighting does to agriculture.” In fact, the customs and traditions surrounding football have always been a reflection of popular culture, not higher education. Five menus from dinners held in Boston after the Harvard-Yale games in 1909, 1913, and 1927 reflect some of the changes in American society during that period.

Young's Hotel (ca.1910)
The menu from the dinner at Young's Hotel after the Harvard-Yale game in 1909 features a hand-colored illustration on the cover. Opening on Court Street in the financial district of Boston in 1860, the billiard room at Young's was a favorite destination for Harvard students.

Long a bastion of upper-class Boston, the Parker House hosted also many Harvard-related events after opening on School Street in 1855. The bill of fare shown below, celebrating the Harvard-Yale game in 1913, is surprisingly similar to the menu from Young's Hotel four years earlier, reflecting the fact that both hotels were  under the same management.. Although there is no discernible change in the food and the format of the menu, the cover illustration reveals that an important social transformation was in progress.

Years later, writer Virginia Woolf observed, “On or about December, 1910, human character changed.”1 This hyperbolic remark, assigning an arbitrary date to a sea change in society, referred to the altering nature of human relationships. Although the date seems arbitrary, these illustrations suggest that there was something to it. The woman in 1909 is self-assured but aloof, her vague, unfocused expression representing the feminine ideal at the time. The look was popularly known as the “Gibson Girl,” named after artist Charles Dana Gibson whose illustrations personified the image. By contrast, the woman depicted in 1913 stares straight at the man. Describing what happened around this time, journalist Henry Allen reports: “Women ignore their mother’s lessons on how a lady appears in public. They slowly jettison corsets, shed chaperones, and hike their hemlines over their ankles. They face the camera with an amused wiseguy wariness. Sometimes, for mischief, they pose with cigarettes. The face of sublimity starts to become the face of sexuality.”2 You can see the change in these illustrations, shown side-by-side for comparison.

The country was crazy about college football during the 1920s. It was now followed by a much broader segment of the population than it had been in 1913, as reflected by an “Our Gang” silent movie titled “Yale vs. Harvard” released in 1927, the same year as the next three menus from the annual game.

There were also major changes in the restaurant industry, sparked by Prohibition after it went into effect in 1920. Without the profits from wine and other alcoholic beverages, many of the best restaurants in the country closed. Although there was a marked decline at the top end, people were still eating out more than ever. Low-priced restaurants like luncheonettes and cafeterias flourished. There were also new kinds of eateries, such as drive-ins, barbecue stands, and hamburger chains. Restaurants advertised simple, home-style cooking served in clean surroundings. Comedian W. C. Fields captured the spirit of the new dining establishments when he advised, “Never eat at a place called ‘Moms,’ but if the only other place in town has a sign that says ‘Eats,’ go back to Moms.”

The set menu shown below from the Parker House in 1927 seems to reflect the lower standards of the era. However, unlike the fine restaurants, the better hotels prospered during the 1920s, despite the lesser quality of their food service. In fact, Parker House demolished its old hotel and reopened in 1927 in a new building, illustrated on a page in this menu.

There were enormous changes in transportation over the eighteen-year period spanned by these menus. In 1909, Wilbur Wright made a historic 42-mile flight around Manhattan; in 1927, the big news was aviator Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic. There were also more cars on the road. Over ten million people flocked to showrooms to see the new Model-A when it was introduced in 1927. By then, Henry Ford had sold over 15 million Model-Ts. The menu shown below is from the Suntaug Lake Inn, situated fifteen miles outside of Boston, which was now within easy access of the game.

Designed by sports illustrator Charles Donelan, the menu shown below comes from the Club Karnak in Boston in 1927, a memorable year in sports. Baseball legend Babe Ruth hit a record sixty home runs for the New York Yankees that year. In boxing, heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey floored Gene Tunney in a rematch, still losing the decision. It was also the year that marked the last of Yale’s eighteen national football championships.

1. Virginia Woolf, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, essay (1924).
2. Henry Allen, What It Felt Like: Living in the American Century, New York (1999).

1 comment:

Jan Whitaker said...

Henry -- I like the quotations you used in this. Excellent post! -- Jan