Nineteen-year-old Winslow Homer illustrated this lively scene showing George Peabody’s visit to South Danvers, Massachusetts in 1856.1,2 The London-based financier returned to his hometown to see the library he had recently donated. Today, Peabody is widely regarded as the father of modern philanthropy. In addition to his largess, Peabody worked to improve the relationship between the United States and Great Britain which had been in the doldrums since the War of 1812. Charitable giving and diplomatic initiatives naturally lead to banquets, both given and received. And so it comes as no surprise that many of the significant milestones in Peabody’s life were marked by a menu. Seven menus and related ephemera recall the life of a great man whose contributions to society continue to this day.
Born into a poor family in 1795, Peabody began his career in the dry goods business and later went into banking. In 1837, he moved to London where he amassed a large fortune as an international banker. On July 4, 1851, Peabody hosted a banquet, concert, and ball for Abbott Lawrence, the American Minister to the Court of St James’s. The dinner was held at Almack’s Willis Rooms in London. The elegant affair, which signified Peabody’s social emergence, was attended by members of the British aristocracy, including the venerable 82-year-old Duke of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo.
The Great Exhibition
The Great Exhibition in 1851 was officially named The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. One nation that could not seem to get its act together was the United States which reserved four times the space it needed but then refused to provide the funds to mount the exhibit. Peabody intervened and paid for the American-made products to be transferred from the warehouse and put on display in the Crystal Palace, the enormous glass building that housed the fair in London’s Hyde Park.
Although the extra space gave the American Pavilion an empty look, the exhibit sent a clear message—the United States was a growing industrial force. The products included Alfred C. Hobbs’ unpickable lock, Cyrus McCormick’s reaper, Richard Hoe’s printing press, and Samuel Colt’s revolver which represented a leap forward in precision manufacturing. Produced using templates and measuring tools in conjunction with powered, repeatable metal-cutting machines, the Colt revolver featured interchangeable parts, unlike the components being handcrafted in Europe which were unique to each gun. When the Great Exhibition ended in October of that year, Peabody entertained the jubilant American industrialists at the London Coffee House. The banquet was front page news in the United States.
Anglo-American Friendship Banquets
In May 1853, Peabody held a dinner for Joseph R. Ingersoll, the outgoing U.S. Minister. The distinguished guests included former President Martin Van Buren, an epicure who had once served as the American ambassador. It was held at the Star and Garter Hotel on Richmond Hill, overlooking Thames Valley in the countryside outside London. The menu shown below was printed on quarto lace paper by the stationer Dobbs, Bailey & Co.
Afterward, some of the leading opera singers of the day performed arias by Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi.
At a similar dinner on July 4, 1854, Peabody offended many of his American guests when he toasted Queen Victoria before President Franklin Pierce. Ambassador James Buchanan, Pierce’s future successor, left in a huff. It was also during this year that Peabody took on financier Junius Spencer Morgan as a partner. Their joint business eventually became J. P. Morgan & Co. after Peabody’s retirement.
Peabody Institute Library
Driven by memories of an impoverished childhood that provided for little schooling, Peabody funded mostly educational projects in the United States. In 1854, the Peabody Institute Library opened in South Danvers, Massachusetts, and two years later, he came to see the new building amidst much fanfare, as depicted by young Winslow Homer. Dignitaries at the event wore ribbons, such as the one below promoting the value of education.
Boston caterer Joshua B. Smith prepared a collation for the multitudes that was served in a tent next to the library.
In Britain, Peabody focused his charitable giving on housing for the poor. In 1862, he founded the Peabody Donation Fund (now the Peabody Trust) which is still one of London’s largest housing associations with about 55,000 properties. However, Peabody continued to give generously on both sides of the Atlantic. In February of that year, his hometown held its sixth annual celebration of his birthday. The menu below includes wild hickory nuts called shagbarks and “pure” California port and white wine.3
By the time South Danvers held its thirteenth annual celebration of his birthday in 1869, the town had been renamed Peabody in his honor.
When Peabody died later that year in London, he was given a funeral and temporary grave in Westminster Abbey. The following year, Prime Minister William Gladstone ordered HMS Monarch, the largest ship in the Royal Navy, to carry his remains back to the United States so that he could be buried in Massachusetts according to his will.
George Peabody established numerous educational trusts that still bear his name, winning him many admirers. He continued to be remembered long after his death. Despite being in the grips of a harsh economic depression, the town of Peabody marked the centennial of his birth at this banquet in 1895.
1. “Proceedings at the reception and dinner in honor of George Peabody, esq. of London, by the citizens of the old town of Danvers, October 9, 1856. To which is appended an historical sketch of the Peabody institute, with the exercises at the laying of the corner-stone and at the dedication.” Boston: H. W. Dutton & son, printers, 1856.
2. Two plates have been identified as the first book illustrations by Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910): “Lexington Monument, S. Danvers, and Residence of Hon. R.S. Daniels,” which is shown above, and “Arch at Danversport, near the Baptist Church.” The book also has illustrations by M. C. Oby (American, 19th century) and lithographs by Leopold Grozelier (French American, 1865–1907), Lodowick H. Bradford (American, active 1845–1859), and John H. Bufford (American, active 1835–1871).
3. Ivory-colored shagbarks are buttery and sweet, somewhere between a pecan and walnut which are in the same family.