Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Thanksgiving Tableau


The Grandon Hotel selected card stock with this melodramatic scene on the cover for its Thanksgiving menu in 1897.1 The staged photograph, which shows a well-dressed couple bringing a basket of food to a poor wretch, foreshadowed the imminent arrival of the silent movie.

When the Grandon opened in 1885, it was one of the best hotels in Helena, Montana, then a wealthy mining center. The handsome building was distinguished by a single granite column that supported its northeast bay. By 1897, the gold in nearby Last Chance Gulch had run out and the small town of 12,000 carried on more simply as the state capital.

Dinner at the Grandon typically began with oysters delivered by the Northern Pacific Railroad. The blue points were shelled on the East Coast and packed in milk containers for the 2,200-mile trip to Helena, where they were unpacked and placed back on the half shells for serving. This daily ritual was performed in cities and small towns across the country in the late nineteenth century, causing per capita consumption in the United States to reach 660 oysters per year, well ahead of the United Kingdom and France, where 120 and 26 oysters were consumed on average, respectively. This bill of fare features a number of fancy dishes, such as green turtle soup, caviar, planked whitefish, and a haunch of venison which served as the game dish.  

The artistic grouping of costumed participants had roots in photography going back to the 1840s, when subjects remained motionless for minutes to accommodate long exposure times. This type of quiet display came to be called a tableau from the French term tableau vivant, meaning “living picture.” The tableau was a popular form of entertainment that appeared in everything from small parties to grand balls. It was also employed in theater productions where actors held a pose at the end of an act. However, the photograph on this menu captures the dynamic moment of a drama, making it look more like a movie still than a traditional tableau. Although motion pictures were a novelty in penny arcades, things would change over the next ten years, as four thousand small cinemas called “nickelodeons” opened across the country, marking the dawn of the movie industry.

1. Card stock made by the C. E. Morrell Company of Elmira, New York.

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