Few menus from the early 1840s have survived. Dating to a time when people seldom ate outside the home, they were rarely seen even then. Hotels and restaurants were in their infancy, slowly emerging as an expression of American ideals of mobility, democracy, and civil society. This is evidenced by two menus from Boston in the summer of 1842, showing a certain degree of uniformity in the foods consumed by the middle- and working-classes of the Jacksonian Era.
Situated in a low, dark room on Court Square, near the Old State Building, Parker’s Restorant (sic) was frequented by businessmen, lawyers, and newspapermen. The daily menu shown below displays an early spelling of the French word “restaurant” which was still a relatively new term. The prices are shown in 12½-cent increments, reflecting the widespread use of the Spanish real. Although the discovery of gold in California was only six years away, the practice of using the specie of other countries would continue until 1857, when the mines in the West were producing enough precious metals for the United States to mint all its own coins. By then, restaurateur Harvey Parker had established the Parker House, a first-class hotel on School Street, near the venerable Tremont House.
In 1842, Whig politician John Tyler was the U.S. President, having ascended from the vice presidency the previous year, following the death of William Henry Harrison after only a month in office. President Tyler’s first wife died in September, and a few months later, he began courting a beautiful and wealthy 23-year-old New Yorker named Julia Gardiner. Despite their thirty-year age difference, they married in 1844. However, the youthful First Lady was soon accused of having “queen fever,” when her regal behavior and lavish entertaining ran counter to Jacksonian sensibilities. Indeed, it was Julia Tyler who started the tradition of having the band play “Hail to the Chief” whenever the President appeared at social and official events. (Incredibly, as of 2013, two of President Tyler’s grandsons who descended from this May-December union are still alive, despite the passage of almost 170 years.1)
The menu below comes from an Independence Day banquet at Porter’s Cambridge Market Hotel, located in an area now known as Porter Square. The Fourth of July was the biggest holiday of the year, celebrated with speeches, parades, fireworks and festive banquets, such as this one held by the “truckmen.” Once ubiquitous on the bustling streets of American cities, truckmen used handcarts to move goods to the warehouses and markets. Describing the colorful language of these workers in his diary in 1840, essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “I confess to some pleasure from the stinging rhetoric of a rattling oath in the mouth of truckmen & teamsters. How laconic and brisk it is by the side of a page of the North American Review. Cut these words & they would bleed; they are vascular & alive; they walk & run. Moreover they who speak them have this elegancy, that they do not trip in their speech. It is a shower of bullets…”
The food at the proletarian banquet in Cambridge sounds very similar to the daily fare at the bourgeois restaurant in Boston. The dishes on both menus are described in basic terms like “beef,” “pig,” and “mutton.” Neither menu employs culinary French to describe how the dishes were prepared. The underlying message is one of abundance, not cuisine. However, by late 1840s, the famines and failed revolutions in Europe sparked the first wave of mass immigration into the United States, causing the nation’s cultural and social practices to become more diversified, including the consumption of food.
1. Both President Tyler (1790-1862) and his son Lyon (1853-1935) were married twice; in each case, their second wives were much younger. http://www.sherwoodforest.org/Genealogy.html
2. The two menus were printed by Dutton and Wentworth, the firm that also produced the Boston Evening Transcript. In 1842, Cornelia Wells Walter was named editor of the Transcript, becoming the first woman to hold this position at a major American daily. Thirty years later, Frederic Hudson, author of Journalism in the United States from 1690 to 1872, reported that she “managed the intellectual department of the paper to the satisfaction of every one.”