The menu did not exist until the late 1830s. It came into being along with the earliest hotels and restaurants, at a time when service à la russe—the serving of dishes in courses rather than all at once—was growing in popularity. For the first time, diners were granted choice and anticipation.
Menus aid our cultural memory. They provide unwitting historical evidence—not only of what people were eating, but what they were doing and with whom they were doing it; who they were trying to be; and what they valued. Deciphering the particular story behind each menu requires great sleuth-work. That’s what I'll be undertaking on this website.
My collection of menus illustrates the evolution of American culture, beginning in the mid-19th century. It contains bills of fare from a wide variety of venues, ranging from restaurants and hotels to various private organizations, military units, steamships, and trains. From the beginning, the menu has been an art form. Some were beautifully crafted by leading stationers to celebrate special events. Others simply expressed the whimsy of everyday life.
Even when saved as personal souvenirs, menus were frequently discarded by subsequent generations for whom they had no value or special meaning. As with other types of ephemera, one aspect of their appeal lies within the notion of their improbable survival.