When the Class of 1888 graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in June of that year, there were so few cadets that the Daily Graphic in New York City had no difficulty arranging their portraits on a two-page spread.1 Five rare menus transport us back to West Point in the 1880s. In addition to providing a glimpse of the food customs, some of the menus convey a deeper meaning about the long cycle of mourning caused by a sudden death, adding a poignant dimension to these minor historic documents.
The Thanksgiving menu below from 1884 was saved by Charles Victor Donaldson whose likeness can be found in the second row of the class picture, third from the right. Born in Sweden, Donaldson immigrated to the United States with his family and grew up on a farm in Boone County, Iowa. He arrived at West Point in July 1883 and finally graduated with the Class of 1888, ranking 36th of the forty-four cadets. Spending five years at West Point was not unusual; nine members of that class began in 1883.5
The daily menu below from 1885 is neatly written in Spencerian script, a widely-taught American style favored for its speed and legibility. The menu shows that a different meat dish was served at each meal, such as roast pig for Sunday dinner and lamb chops for breakfast on Monday morning. It reportedly took time for the first-year cadets called “plebes” to become accustomed to the calorific diet.
A point of comparison is provided by the Thanksgiving menu below from 1916 which includes a daily menu from 1820 that was transcribed “from an old record.” This bill of fare confirms that the food before the Civil War was intentionally similar to U.S. Army field rations. The monotonous diet, mostly comprising bull beef, boiled potatoes and bread, lacked variety. Although the fare changed daily, the menu was repeated weekly. To supplement the officially bland diet, cadets occasionally went into town to eat or pilfered food from the kitchen which they prepared in their quarters. Such non-regulation food was called “hash.” According to lore, one of the most talented hash-makers was William Tecumseh Sherman, Class of 1840.
The Thanksgiving menu below from 1886 is an example of “artistic printing,” a style adopted by letterpress printers in the late nineteenth century. In order to make their work more attractive, printers mixed ornamental typefaces and quirky embellishments that imitated the intricacy of more expensive processes like lithography and engraving. This menu was printed by the USMA Press.