When Edgar Allan Poe was writing for the New York Evening Mirror in the mid-1840s, he and other newspapermen congregated at a nearby beer cellar and eatery known as Sandy Welsh’s. Situated at 85 Nassau Street, around the corner from P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, the popular hangout was called a “refectory” in the city directories. Poe produced his poem “The Raven” at small intervals during this period, reportedly submitting the stanzas piecemeal for criticism to fellow journalists at Sandy Welsh’s.2 The convivial spirit of this establishment is reflected by a menu dated February 12, 1847, offering a rare glimpse of everyday life that would nevermore be the same.
The neighborhood was filled with newspapers and magazines and there were more to come. The New-York Daily Times—later the New York Times—was established a few doors down in 1851. So perhaps it comes as no surprise that proprietor Alexander “Sandy” Welsh printed his menu in the form of a small, four-page newspaper.3 He called it Welsh’s Times, humorously boasting that his paper was “an intellectual treat, containing lively notices of passing events, criticisms on theatricals, music, etc., etc., and served up to our friends, with their breakfasts, free----gratis----for nothing.” In fact, it was a promotional handbill as much as it was a menu. In this edition, the front page story is about a bank failure in New Jersey. He describes a crowd standing around a newspaper office all day waiting for news, becoming hungry and resorting to “WELSH’S SPLENDID CHEAP EATING HOUSE, where there was no disappointment...”
Menus generally first appeared in the 1840s when people began to eat outside the home more often. Most extant examples come from banquets or from hotels where set meals were included in the daily rate. Menus from this period with prices are scarce. They can also be confusing. A standard monetary unit in antebellum America was 12½ cents, reflecting the widespread use of foreign coins like the Spanish real. Foreign coins were allowed until 1857 when the United States finally had enough gold and silver to mint all of its own specie. In the meantime, the standard 12½-cent unit went by different names in different parts of the country. In New York, it was referred to as a “shilling” and half that amount was called a “six pence.” The prices shown below utilize the British abbreviations for a shilling (s) and penny (d) even though they were related in name only.
While playful, the puffery accompanying the bill of fare indicates that operating a restaurant in Manhattan had already become a highly competitive business.4 Welsh states he is engaged in “the most important of all earthly avocations—cating,” seemingly a gerund of the archaic word cate, meaning a choice food or delicacy.5 Although there appears to be nothing special about his cuisine, he claims to serve the best foods the market can provide, going so far as to charter a schooner to bring in the first shad of the season. “Due notice will be given of its arrival, by the issue of an Extra Times, and the firing off of a hundred guns. LOOK OUT FOR THE SHAD!” declares the restaurateur, mimicking the publicity stunts of his neighbor, the great showman P. T. Barnum.
Spring was in the air. The third page features an illustration of a crocus and a pink carnation—only this and nothing more.
On the back there is an oddly positioned cartoon of unknown origin titled “Jack Bean leaving Mary Ann.” The sense of time and place is also conveyed by the advertisements on this page, particularly those for Valentine’s Day cards, daguerreotype “likenesses” and camphene. Limited by its explosiveness and pungent smell, camphene was briefly used at mid-century as a fuel for lamps. And daguerreotypes, the first commercially successful photographs, were still relatively new in 1847, going back just a few years. However, the ad for valentine cards is the timeliest, appearing two days before the holiday.6 Sending mass-produced valentines had become something of a fad with some of the most expensive cards being made of lace paper imported from England, a design concept that luxury hotels employed to construct the finest menus of the era.
The papers reported a notable historic event in late February, when outnumbered U.S. forces repulsed Santa Anna at the Battle of Buena Vista. The feeling of excitement at such moments during the Mexican–American War was memorably captured in Richard Caton Woodville’s painting War News from Mexico which appeared the following year.
Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849. By then, the war was over and Sandy Welsh had closed his refectory where the literati once conferred in the saintly days of yore.7
1. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Delaware Bibliophiles’ Endpapers.
2. Francis Gerry Fairfield, “A Mad Man of Letters,” Scribner’s Monthly (New York), vol. X, no. 6, October 1875, pp. 690-699.
3. The phrase “Vite, Vite, Servez la Tortoise” contained within the masthead recalls a restaurant named Terrapin Lunch that Alexander Welsh operated in the 1830s. It was situated below Scudder’s Museum at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street. The museum, later taken over and renamed by P. T. Barnum, attracted about 400,000 visitors in 1847.
4. “There are one hundred and twenty-three eating-houses or refectories in the city…fifteen in Nassau Street,” not counting oyster saloons. Edward Ruggles, “A Picture of New-York in 1846…,” (New York, Homans and Ellis, 1846), p. 80.
5. “Cating” was also a play on the word catering, meaning to provide what amuses, is desired, or gives pleasure.
6. On 1 February 1847, Walt Whitman reported the death of Poe’s 25-year-old wife, Virginia Eliza, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, noting that it had been “mentioned in the New York prints.” Two weeks later on Valentine’s Day, Poe presented a friend named Marie Louise Shew with a valentine poem expressing his deep gratitude for nursing his dying wife, and then him, when he became ill following his wife’s death.
7. During the 1847-48 period, Alexander Welsh relocated his restaurant to 15 Park Row where it operated briefly before closing. A utopian author, publisher and printer named Calvin Blanchard moved into Welsh’s old location at 85 Nassau Street and opened a bookshop on the premises. Doggett’s New-York City Directory for 1847 & 1848.