|“Five O’clock Tea” by Charles Morgan McIlhenney (1887)|
Everyone usually brought a dish to these gatherings. In the spring of 1885, the potluck supper at May Joyner’s house was called a “five o’clock tea,” even though it included foods like fried chicken, home-made potato chips (called “Saratoga chips”) and a lettuce salad with Durkee’s dressing produced in Queens, New York. Also used as an invitation or place card, this menu is faintly inscribed with the name of Carrie Rankin, probably the person who saved these menus. Her name appears on all of them in one form or another. Then twenty-nine years old, she brought the baking powder biscuits shown on the menu below.
The late-afternoon meal at Mrs. Flint Smith’s house in October 1885 is dubbed a “four o’clock lunch.” These menus are printed in the “artistic style,” featuring the fancy font designs and quirky embellishments then in vogue. Carrie’s husband, Francis H. Rankin, Jr., was a letterpress printer (and publisher of the Wolverine Citizen) who probably made these menus for his wife and her friends. The personal nature of these small-lot production runs may explain why his name does not appear as the printer on any of the menus.
Several menus are marked with the Roman numeral “XIV,” suggesting that this particular social clique comprised fourteen women. Reflecting the typical foods of the era, the “five o’clock tea” in November at Miss Minnie Hamilton’s home includes cold tongue, oyster sandwiches, and Parker House rolls, named after the hotel in Boston. In fact, the menu below is printed on card stock engraved by J. A. Lowell in Boston.
Strawberries were in season in May 1886, when Annie Chase hosted this “afternoon coffee.” Many of these meals include a lettuce salad, a seasonal dish that was not often served at hotels and restaurants. In fact, the word “salad” on commercial menus often referred to cooked salads. Lettuce varieties were then highly perishable and only available in local markets during the spring and fall, until refrigerated rail cars were further developed in the early twentieth century.
Loretta Putnam hosted the group in July of possibly the same year. To escape the heat of the day, this so-called “tea” began at 7:30 in the evening. Featuring cold dishes appropriate for the summertime, this supper may have been served al fresco, either on the porch or in the yard.
On April 27 of the following year, Carrie Rankin hosted this lunch at her home on First Avenue and Lyon Street in central Flint. As one might expect in a small town, this group of friends (some of whom were related) lived within a six-block radius of one another.
Representing a different type of affair, the menu shown below provides an added perspective of the social customs and spirit of the era. It comes from the third annual party of the Why Not Club, comprising a group of men whose membership included Francis Rankin and a few others who were married to women belonging to the “XIV.” The event was held on Thursday evening, November 26, 1885, which happened to be Thanksgiving, although there is no reference to the holiday. The festivities began with dancing, followed by a late supper at the Bryant Hotel.
Sometimes a menu is inscribed with a brief comment, identifying the nature of the event. However, the somber notations on the back of this menu are odd. Twenty years later in 1906, someone (presumably Carrie Rankin) used this list of the club’s members to run a grim tally, adding up how many of the “Why Nots” were now dead. Although thirteen men were marked as having died, the total was incorrectly noted as “12.” While looking more closely to figure out this math error, I noticed the name “W. C. Durant,” one of the eight men shown as still living. This was probably William C. Durant, a leading pioneer of the automobile industry who embodied the optimism reflected by the name of the club.
|William C. Durant, ca. 1885|