Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Menus generally first appeared in the United States in the late 1830s. They came into being with the earliest hotels and restaurants, and 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 story behind a particular menu often requires great sleuth-work. That’s what I'll be undertaking on this website.
My collection of menus illustrates American history and culture beginning from the mid-19th century. It contains bills of fare from a wide variety of venues, ranging from restaurants and hotels to private organizations, military units, steamships, and trains. From the start, the menu has been an art form. Some were beautifully crafted by printers or high-society 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 special meaning. As with other types of ephemera, one aspect of their appeal lies within the notion of their improbable survival.