|Astor House (1851)|
The rise of the American middle class is one of the most pervasive themes that can be identified in the chronology of the country’s ephemera. Driven at first by the industrial revolution, the overall improvement in the standard of living played out differently for various segments of the population. Nevertheless, despite many obstacles such as the great wars and economic downturns, people continued to live better and better over time, as revealed by the minor documents of their everyday lives, including menus.
An example of this improvement in living standards is reflected by the menus from five luxury hotels in New York during the twenty years prior to the Civil War. The menus show the emergence of a sizable upper-middle class at a time when most middle-class families in the city resided in boarding houses and hotels; there were not many other options—private houses were very expensive and apartment buildings would not appear until the late 1870s. In this environment, those who prospered could improve their standard of living by moving to a better boarding house or, beyond that, into one of the luxury hotels that were then all heavily residential. The importance of hotels in urban life cannot be overestimated. “Citizens were known to pass their entire lives in them,” recount historians Michael and Ariane Batterberry. “Families tended toward hotel life. No one but the extremely rich bothered to operate their own households.”3 There were also social advantages to this lifestyle, particularly for married women who were freed from the chores of domestic labor. When asked to define the nature of Americans, poet Walt Whitman replied, “They are a boarding people.” These menus show how well some of the "boarding people" lived.
In the early 1830s, John Jacob Astor, the wealthiest man in the United States, hired architect Isaiah Rogers to design a hotel for New York that would rival Boston’s Tremont House—a hotel that Rogers designed several years earlier. The need for a new luxury hotel became evident as the city’s wealth increased after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. With fewer than thirty hotels in the city, there was also a growing demand for high-end housing. Before the six-story building was completed, Horace Greely’s New Yorker informed its readers that half of the rooms had already been reserved for family residence.
In June 1836, the Astor House opened at 255 Broadway, between Vesey and Barclay Streets, across from the old Federal Building. At first named the Park Hotel, the timing was poor for the country was just beginning to experience a series of financial panics that would culminate in a six-year depression, one of the worst in the nation’s history. The lavish table d’hote menu shown below, dated September 9, 1841, does not reveal that the country was still in the lingering grips of an economic decline.4 Despite its refined French cuisine, the Astor House operated on the American plan where the daily rate included room and board—about $2.50 a day for transient guests in 1841.5 This menu is for the “gentlemen’s ordinary,” meaning that it accompanied the set meal served in the men’s dining room. A popular gathering spot for the city’s merchants, the Astor House operated several dining rooms, including a “ladies ordinary,” a separate dining room for unescorted women then being customary at the upper-end establishments.
The New York Hotel reportedly got off to a slow start when it opened in 1844 despite being the first to provide hall baths. With now over a hundred hotels in the city to choose from, the issue may have been its remote uptown location at 721 Broadway, between Washington Place and Waverly Place. Another problem was its adoption of the European plan. The decision to charge separately for room and board was made by the hotel’s manager, a French chef named S. B. Monnot, who wanted to offer his guests flexible dining hours and à la carte menus. However, Americans still preferred the sociability of being served set meals at set hours. Transient guests looked forward to enjoying the company of interesting dinner companions when they visited the city. (The hotel was a favorite of aristocratic Southerners visiting antebellum New York.) Moreover, the custom fit into the domestic routine of the families living at the hotel. In fact, the table d’hote was the main pillar of family hotel life according to Harper’s Weekly. As shown by this 1849 menu, the hotel eventually changed over to the American plan.
Real estate prices rose sharply in the years following the depression, making private houses in the city prohibitively expensive. In the early 1850s, two large hotels—the St. Nicholas and the Metropolitan—opened to fill the growing need for upscale housing. The new hotels were somewhat less refined than the Astor House, but no less pretentious. Lloyd Morris describes the scene in his history Incredible New York:
“The huge white-marble St. Nicholas on Broadway and Broome Streets…could accommodate nearly eight hundred guests. It was elaborately furnished, and boasted the novelty of a central heating plant which piped hot air, through registers, into every room. Before dinner hour the lobby, parlors and reading room of the St. Nicholas resembled a human beehive, and the crowd of loungers often overflowed on Broadway. Just north of the St. Nicholas, at Prince Street, the Metropolitan Hotel was equally costly and luxurious. Occupying a whole block on Broadway, it was a massive brownstone structure which contained one hundred suites of ‘family apartments’ and could shelter six hundred guests. The Metropolitan was operated by the Leland brothers—the first men to set up a chain of hotels in the United States—and they imported most of its furnishings and decorations from Europe. They, too, had installed central heating, and added the further refinement of ‘sky parlors’ high above Broadway where ladies could sit and look down on the fashionable promenade. Once or twice a week, throughout the winter, the St. Nicholas and Metropolitan held evening balls for the pleasure of their guests, at which ‘polkas of amazing activity and champagne of irresistible strength drive dull care away.’ Both hotels were conducted on the so-called American plan. With care and economy, a family might reside in either a cost of somewhat more than one hundred dollars a week. Bachelors, if content with the cheapest rooms, paid only fifteen dollars a week for lodging and board.”6
This menu for the five o’clock ordinary, or table d’hote supper, at the Metropolitan, is dated Sunday, February 20, 1853. The bill of fare is not evenly positioned within the engraved border and lacks the name of a printer, indicating that it was probably printed at the hotel. The social swirl is evidenced by the notice at the top for the Tuesday night ball. There were also plenty of outside activities nearby such as Niblo’s Garden, New York’s foremost theater, that was nestled in the crook of the huge L-shaped hotel. (The buildings were so close that the theater’s saloon was converted into a dining room for the hotel in 1865.) Niblo’s Garden featured vaudeville, popular plays, and even Italian operas—Donizetti’s comic opera Don Pasquale was performed during the week of this dinner.
The following menus from the Metropolitan and St. Nicholas survive from two consecutive days in October 1858. The earliest, a plain dinner menu from the Metropolitan, is entirely in English, without any of the culinary French that liberally embellished the hotel’s menu five years earlier. Another change is the name of a printer that appears below the wine list on the back. As the number of hotels and restaurants in the city expanded, some printers began to specialize in daily menus.
Robin au crouton, listed among the entrees on this charming menu from the St. Nicholas, is a rarely-seen dish. Presumably, the small birds were broiled and dressed on small toasts in the same way as thrushes or quail. They were often covered with maître d’hôtel butter, a mixture that included chopped parsley, salt, pepper, and lemon juice.
In 1859 the Fifth Avenue Hotel opened far uptown where Fifth Avenue crosses Broadway at 23rd Street. The white marble-faced building, opposite Madison Square Park, featured richly appointed public rooms and lavish décor. Unquestionably the finest hotel in New York, it employed four hundred servants for its guests and was the first hotel to offer private bathrooms. Another innovation was its passenger elevator, called a “vertical screw railway.” This table d’hote dinner menu is dated October 9, 1860, about a year after the hotel opened.
Two days after this dinner, the Prince of Wales, nineteen-year-old son of Queen Victoria and heir apparent to the British throne, arrived in New York for a visit. Two hundred thousand people jammed along Broadway to catch a glimpse of the young prince in his carriage. Never ones to miss an opportunity, the management of the St. Nicholas and Metropolitan sold their rooms facing the street for “fabulous prices” to anyone willing to pay for a good view of the parade, according to the New York Times. The prince and his entourage continued all the way up to the new Fifth Avenue Hotel where they checked in for several days. But that is another story.
1. Harper’s magazine, January 2010.
2. Depressions in the U.S. occurred after economic contractions in 1818-1819, 1836-1837, 1856-1857, 1872-1873, 1884-1885, 1892-1893, 1920-1921, 1929-1933, and 1937-1938. Growth slowed in a series of post-World War II recessions in 1954-1955, 1957-1958, 1960-1961, 1969-1970, 1974-1975, 1980-1982, 1990-1992, 2001-2002 and 2007-2009. Paul S. Boyer, Oxford Companion to United States History, New York, 2001.
3. Michael and Ariane Batterberry, On the Town in New York, New York, 1973.
4. It is interesting to note that psychologist William James was born at the Astor House on January 11, 1842, four months after this dinner.
5. A. K. Sandoval-Strausz, Hotel: An American History, Yale University Press, 2007.
6. Lloyd Morris, Incredible New York, New York, 1951.