The United States entered an era of rapid growth in 1878 following a deep depression. Over the next five years, Kansas became the first state to outlaw all alcoholic beverages, the opening salvo of a heartland backlash that would eventually culminate in a nationwide constitutional ban. Thomas Edison patented the light bulb; John D. Rockefeller set up the Standard Oil Trust; and a railroad building boom significantly increased the miles of track, transforming a myriad of lines into a grand transportation network. It was the dawn of the Gilded Age. The ranks of the middle and upper classes expanded once again, allowing more people than ever to dine outside the home on the holidays when the hotels pulled out all the stops. Twelve Christmas menus from throughout the country during the years 1878 to 1882 provide a snapshot of a newly-prosperous society.
City Hotel – New Orleans
In addition to the St. Charles, the finest hotels in the city were the Verandah, the St. Louis, and the City Hotel which stood on the corner of Camp and Common Streets. Although regional influences were generally muted in the late nineteenth century, the menus in New Orleans reflected French and Creole influences and the abundance of local seafood. This lavish dinner in 1878 features a wide range of dishes, such as baked sheepshead à la Boudro (named after the antebellum New Orleans chef Lucien Bourdo), snipe pate à la Tallyrand, and Kentucky possum with sweet potatoes, a dish that symbolized the Old South.
National Soldiers Home – Dayton, Ohio
After the Civil War, eleven veterans’ homes were established to provide care for disabled Union soldiers. One of the first and the largest of these facilities was in Dayton, Ohio where the campus covered 627 acres. Perhaps due to the improving economic conditions, the institution printed menus in 1878 for its Christmas dinner that featured roast venison with cranberry sauce.
West End Hotel – Philadelphia
This hotel on Chestnut Street offered its guests the option of the European Plan in which meals were charged separately. However, on Christmas day in 1879, the hotel hosted a special table d’hôte dinner where the oysters were served on “silver salvers,” the soup in “silver bowls,” and the entrées on “silver dishes.” The fish course arrived in chafing dishes of no particular distinction. Interestingly, the fifteen entrées are individually numbered, perhaps to ease the confusion of a large event.
Sheridan House – Bismarck, Dakota Territory
Homesteaders poured into the Dakota Territory to claim 160 acres of government land under the Homestead Act after the last Sioux War ended in 1877. It was during that year that the Sheridan House opened in Bismarck. Built on land owned by the Northern Pacific Railway, the hotel also operated as a railroad passenger station. The local letterpress printer employed a variety of typeface designs and quirky ornaments to make the cover of this small menu look more “artistic.”
The bill of fare on Christmas in 1880 offered more than eighty dishes. In addition to local game like buffalo and elk, many foods were brought in by rail, such as oysters, fresh cod, and Florida oranges.
East End Hotel – Pittsburgh
The rich East End neighborhood was home to Pittsburgh’s wealthy industrialists. In 1901, this hotel hosted a formal dinner that augured the formation of United States Steel. Over 89 millionaires assembled in one room for that event, something that had never occurred before. This relatively-modest menu from Christmas in 1881 features such entrées as broiled quail on toast, pheasant à la Tartare, and mountain oysters with Italian sauce.
Louisville Hotel – Louisville, Kentucky
The cuisine on this extensive menu seems to fall somewhat short for a luxury hotel. The slump may have been caused by the departure of its Swiss-born chef de cuisine, Frank Xavier Mivelaz, who left earlier in 1881 to open a restaurant in Little Rock. Still, there are many game dishes, including one called braised leg of squirrel au chasseur.
Hibbard House – Jackson, Michigan
Jackson was an important transportation hub that boasted four separate depots before the railroad lines were consolidated at Union Station. In 1881, there were six main hotels in town. Dishes such as California trout and Philadelphia ice cream reflect advances in refrigerated rail cars.
St. Nicholas Hotel – New York City
The St. Nicholas was one of nineteen fine hotels that opened on Broadway in the five years from 1850 to 1854. Renowned for its luxurious décor, comfort, and services, this vast hotel was home to many permanent boarders until the housing situation began to change in the late 1870s when the first apartment buildings were built on Eighteenth Street. “By 1881 the hotels had lost most of their permanent residents,” recount historians Michael and Ariane Batterberry. “Hotels still tried to retain something of a family atmosphere, and put themselves out, particularly during the holiday season, to center the activity of the city within their walls. Christmas dinners were sumptuous, and featured menu cards ingenious and marvelous to behold.”
The lavish menu below from 1881 was made by the society stationer Dempsey & Carroll. The card is covered with a swath of blue silk with an illustration of the St. Nicholas, whose white marble façade dominated the west side of Broadway between Broome and Spring Streets, and of the American Hotel, a summer resort in Richfield Springs, New York.
The bill of fare includes dishes with festive names like potatoes à la Santa Claus. It was to no avail. The St. Nicholas closed in 1884 when it was just thirty years old, a victim of the new apartment buildings and the inexorable march to more fashionable neighborhoods further uptown.
Clifton Hotel – Ottawa, Illinois
Situated 80 miles southwest of Chicago, the town of Ottawa had a population of about 8,000 people in 1881. Baked navy beans with salt pork appears in a separate spot on this menu and on the Christmas menu from the following year, suggesting it was a house specialty.
The holiday dinner in 1892 opened with Saddle Rock oysters, by then a generic marketing term that referred to a rock formation in New York’s East River where exceptionally large oysters were discovered in 1827. Every Christmas, thousands of barrels labeled Saddle Rock and Blue Point were shipped to towns and cities across the country.
Richardson Hotel – Dover, Delaware
Alden Richardson and James Robbins opened a cannery in 1855 that would supply food for the Union Army during the Civil War. Fifteen years later, they established a larger plant to meet rising consumer demand for canned fruits and vegetables from the surrounding farmland in Kent County. Three weeks before Christmas in 1882, Alden Richardson opened his eponymous hotel at the intersection of State Street and Kings Highway where the first cannery had been located. The 68-room hotel boasted steam heat, gaslight, and bathrooms on every floor. It was hailed as the finest hotel on the Chesapeake Peninsula.
The cuisine at the Richardson was distinguished by the local game birds such as the wild goose a L’ Aberdeen [sic.] and braised bucks à la Provencale on this menu from 1882. As if to compensate for the fact that wine and spirits were not allowed on the premises, the bill of fare offers a large number of pastries and desserts, suggesting the temperance movement may have contributed to the steady increase of sugar in the American diet.
Arlington Hotel – Seattle, Washington Territory
The Arlington Hotel was housed in a multi-story, wood-frame building with a false front. It was located on the waterfront section of Commercial Street, near the Jackson Street Wharf, Bow’s Livery Stable, City Hall, and a Gothic Revival Catholic Church. This menu, which may have been used on Christmas in 1882 and a week later on New Year’s Day, includes an extensive wine list.
The dinner in Seattle was similar to those in other parts of the country. Dining in the quasi-public spaces of hotels and restaurants offered few surprises in the late nineteenth century. The table d’hôte followed a standardized format mostly based on English and French cuisine and that emphasized wild game dishes, especially on the holidays and other special occasions. And the same ingredients were broadly available thanks to the burgeoning railroad network. In a sense, these Christmas menus were cultural expressions of the bounty and industrial progress of the nation.