Friday, December 30, 2011

New Years Day, 1885

The major news stories in 1885 were about large things—the Statue of Liberty arrived from France; the Washington Monument was finally completed; and the ten-story Home Insurance Building was erected in Chicago, the first "skyscraper" made with structural steel. It was also the year that Jumbo the Elephant was killed by a locomotive while crossing the railroad tracks, three years after showman P. T. Barnum brought the beloved circus animal to the United States amid great fanfare. Four menus from New Years Day in 1885 show how the holiday was once celebrated, revealing one of the social customs of everyday life at a time when big things were happening.

Mason City, Iowa 
On New Years Day in the nineteenth century, the president hosted an afternoon reception where he received ambassadors, congressmen, and distinguished citizens at the White House. There were also social gatherings in small towns, as illustrated by the menu below from Mason City, Iowa, then with a population of about 3,000 people. The menu below is printed on card stock engraved by Baldwin & Gleason in New York City, representing the latest in graphic design.1 The women who hosted this event went by popular nicknames, such as Lizzie, Bessie, Hattie, and Gertie. Although Minnie was the diminutive for Mary, it was also a surname in its own right, then at the height of its popularity, ranking fifth among all women’s names in the United States.2

The bill of fare features oysters from New York and oranges from Florida. This collation, or light mid-afternoon meal, also includes typical dishes like chicken salad and boiled ham, accompanied by home-made potato chips, called “Saratoga chips,” and Parker House rolls.

The music program appears on back page. No place conjures up images of the American heartland quite like Mason City. It was made famous by the 1957 Broadway musical The Music Man which portrayed many of the town's colorful characters at the turn of the last century.

Lakewood, New Jersey 
The Laurel House was situated only sixty-five miles south of New York City. Blessed with a relatively mild climate, this luxurious winter-spring resort in Lakewood offered the type of outdoor activities normally associated with the summer season. In fact, the pine barrens of New Jersey proved so appealing that some of the hotel’s wealthy clients later built estates in the area.

The Laurel House - Lakewood, New Jersey
The refined cuisine at the Laurel House reflected its regular clientele, many of whom were listed on the social register. The resort also attracted other types of distinguished guests like Mark Twain, the architect Stanford White, the restaurateur Samuel S. Childs, and the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Clifton Springs, New York 
The Sanitarium at Clifton Springs served a surprisingly lavish dinner on New Years Day in 1885. Located in western New York, this medical facility practiced alternative forms of medicine, such as hydrotherapy which used water to promote healing, and homeopathy, a practice that administered minute doses of a remedy that would, in larger amounts, produce symptoms similar to those of the disease. 

Dining Room at the Clifton Springs Sanitarium

Many of the dishes shown below are the type of rich foods normally served at restaurants and hotels, such as ham prepared in the Parker House style, a reference to the well-known hotel in Boston. In addition to the large selection of fruit and pastries, this menu also includes bland foods like mashed potatoes, boiled rice, and oat meal.

Emporia, Kansas 
The Central Kansas Live Stock Association held its first annual ball and banquet on New Years Day at the Coolidge Hotel in Emporia. Situated on upland prairie where the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway crossed the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, this town of about 6,000 was well positioned to ship its crops and grass-fattened cattle to the East and West coasts. The railroads also brought in food like fresh oysters and fish.

The hundred and thirty couples who attended this dinner dance probably discussed the recent death of John Simpson Chisum, the Texas rancher who owned over 100,000 head of cattle, the largest herd in the country. No matter how timely the news, however, nothing could have diverted their attention from the extraordinary banquet that awaited them. This bill of fare features many types of game like wild turkey, prairie chicken, Canvasback duck, buffalo, elk, antelope, and black-tailed deer. There are three species of bear prepared in different ways—fillet of Grizzly bear, ribs of Black bear, and loin of Cinnamon bear a la Apache. Other game dishes include braised jack rabbit with burgundy sauce, peacock in gravy, and English hare, Jayhawk style, named after a fictitious bird that once referred to abolitionist guerrillas who fought in the area during Civil War, and later came to mean someone who lives in Kansas. Although the valleys of central Kansas are dotted with many well-tilled farms, there are very few vegetables on this menu in keeping with the livestock theme.

The most distinctive aspect of this menu are the domestic breeds of cattle and swine. The association utilized the efficient rail system to enrich its banquet, securing ham and beef from all seven counties in their jurisdiction. While Galloway, Hereford, and Durham cattle originated from the United Kingdom, two of the three breeds of swine were first developed in the United States. Chester White hogs appeared in Chester County, Pennsylvania sometime around 1818. At about the same time, the Shaker community in Ohio bred the Poland China, using a boar and three sows purchased from a firm in Philadelphia. Poland China are excellent feeders that gain weight quickly and now rank high in U.S. pork production.3 On the other hand, the pink-hued, heavily-marbled Berkshire hogs became a rare breed and only recently made a comeback after upscale restaurants began serving it.

There were eighteen after-dinner toasts, beginning with the State of Kansas, the country, and the cattle interests of the state. These were followed by toasts to the domestic markets, the foreign markets, shorthorn cattle, Galloway cattle, Jersey cattle, feeding and grazing cattle, cattle on the Rio Grande, longhorns, the American hog, live stock transportation, the wool interests of Kansas, the cornfields of Kansas, Buffalo grass, and the middle man. The last toast of the evening was to “the ladies” and with that sentiment properly expressed, the dancing began. The band made the affair sound more like a hop than a ball, according to the Wichita Daily Eagle. The men “whose feet had been strangers to the dance floor for many a year, tripped the light fantastic” until the late hours of the night.

As it turned out, there was some big news in Emporia in 1885. The story began a month before this banquet, when James Walkup, a forty-eight-year-old businessman and acting mayor of Emporia, traveled to New Orleans to visit its brothels. It was there that he met fifteen-year-old Minnie Wallace, the daughter of the woman who ran the boarding house where he was staying. Walkup became infatuated with the teenager who played the piano and sang in the city’s red-light district. Although she spurned his initial advances, Minnie eventually agreed to marry him. However, a month after the newly-married couple returned to Emporia, Walkup fell ill and died; Minnie was charged with murder.4

Minnie Wallace Walkup
Reporters came from all over the country to cover the trial. The local citizenry was divided as to whether Minnie had poisoned Walkup, even though the autopsy revealed that he died of arsenic, a compound that his charming bride had purchased from a nearby druggist on two occasions. And while arsenic was then used medicinally for certain skin conditions, Minnie did not have any such problems with her complexion and had never used it before. Nevertheless, the jury rendered a verdict of “not guilty.” (By some accounts, the jurors were haunted at the prospect of sending this young woman to the gallows.) After collecting a substantial sum of money from her late husband’s life insurance policy, she moved away from Emporia.  

Still only sixteen years old, Minnie went on to lead a long and notorious life. While living in Chicago in 1897, she met a wealthy man who was dying of alcoholism. After moving him into her house, she kept him as a virtual prisoner until she could arrange to marry him. He died twelve days after signing a will leaving everything to her. In 1900, Minnie began a relationship with a married man twenty years her senior. After his wife died, he added Minnie to his will and soon died of cyanide poisoning. Minnie died in 1957 at the age of 88 in San Diego, California.5

1. Card stock of this type was often used for hotel menus. It is unusual to find a printed menu from a private social affair, suggesting that formal menus were not often printed for these occasions.
2. Minnie has not ranked in the top thousand surnames for American women since 1970.
3. These swine may have been Big China hogs, a breed that was popular in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
4. Virginia A. McConnell, The Adventuress: Murder, Blackmail, and Confidence Games in the Gilded Age, Kent State University Press, 2010.


Sean said...

What a great look into our history. Well done!

Deana Sidney said...

Wow, a real black widow and a long lived one!@ She had the face of an angel! I see why she got away with it. Have a happy new year!!

Andrea said...

I enjoyed this post! It took quite a turn. Reading much right now about New Orleans culture and food history. . . . I liked the tie-in to New Orleans, as unexpected as it was. Keep up the great work on this blog!