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" utilizing 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 amidst great fanfare. Bringing in the year of these big events, four menus from New Years Day in 1885 illustrate the social customs and foodways associated with how the holiday was then celebrated, revealing the small details of everyday life in various places across the country.
|New Year's Day Reception at the White House (1889)|
Mason City, Iowa
During the nineteenth century, afternoon receptions were often held on the first day of the year. The president hosted the most prestigious one, a day-long affair greeting ambassadors, congressmen, and distinguished citizens at the White House. The women living in small towns also held social events on that day, as shown by the menu below from Mason City, Iowa. Nothing conjures up images of the American heartland quite like Mason City, especially after the musical The Music Man premiered in 1957, depicting many of the town's colorful characters at the turn of the last century. Although the population was only about 3,000 people in 1885, the menus were printed on card stock engraved by Baldwin & Gleason in New York City, illustrating the latest in graphic design.1 Also reflecting the style of the era, the list of “ladies receiving” includes many of the popular nicknames in the nineteenth century, 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
A light mid-afternoon meal was called a collation. This one begins with oysters from New York and concludes with oranges from Florida, ice cream, and sponge cake. The main dishes on are typical of what you would expect to find at such a gathering—boned turkey, chicken salad, and boiled ham, accompanied by home-made potato chips, called “Saratoga chips,” and Parker House rolls, named after the luxury hotel in Boston. The music program reflects the musical heritage for which Mason City is still known.
Lakewood, New Jersey
The luxurious Laurel House in Lakewood was situated only sixty-five miles south of New York City. Blessed with a slightly milder climate, this winter and spring resort offered numerous outdoor recreational activities normally associated with the summer season. In fact, the pine barrens of New Jersey proved to be so appealing that some of the hotel’s wealthy clients later built estates in the area.
|The Laurel House - Lakewood, New Jersey|
Clifton Springs, New York
The Sanitarium at Clifton Springs served a surprisingly lavish dinner on New Years Day in 1885. Situated 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 resemble the rich foods served at restaurants and hotels, such as the ham prepared in the “Parker House style” (another reference to the well-known hotel in Boston.) In addition to the large selection of fruit and pastries, this menu also includes the bland foods normally served at sanitariums like mashed potatoes, boiled rice, and oat meal.
The Central Kansas Live Stock Association held their first annual ball and banquet on January 1, 1885 at the Coolidge Hotel in Emporia. Situated on upland prairie, where the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway crossed the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, the town of about 6,000 was ideally positioned to ship their crops and grass-fattened cattle to markets on the East and West coasts.
The railroads also brought food to Kansas, such as the fresh oysters and fish served at this banquet. As the hundred and thirty couples gathered that evening, one of the topics of conversation may have been about 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.
|Rogler Ranch, Chase County, Kansas (ca.1885)|
The most unusual thing about this menu are the names of the domestic breeds of cattle and swine. Utilizing the efficient rail system to enrich their banquet, the association featured ham and beef from all seven counties in their jurisdiction. Although Galloway, Hereford, and Durham cattle originated from the United Kingdom, two of the three breeds of swine were developed in the United States. Chester White hogs first appeared in Chester County, Pennsylvania sometime around 1818. At about the same, the Shaker community in Ohio bred the Poland China, using a boar and three sows purchased from a firm in Philadelphia. Excellent feeders that gain weight quickly, Poland China now rank high in U.S. pork production.3 Pink-hued and heavily marbled, Berkshire hogs later became a rare breed, but have made a comeback in recent years, selected by upscale restaurants for its juiciness and flavor.
As it turned out, there was some big news coming out of Emporia in 1885. It all began the 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. While there, 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|
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.