This manuscript account book bearing a typed label reading “Property of Mr. Oscar” recently came to market. The 300-page volume is written in the hand of Oscar Tschirky, the famed maître ďhôtel at the Waldorf-Astoria. It contains the particulars of private events at the hotel from mid-December 1905 to mid-May 1906, including the date, organization, number of guests, bill of fare, and cost. The manner in which the name is expressed on the cover and its worn condition indicates the culinary staff may have referred to it as part of their daily routine. My first step in processing this wealth of social information was simply to compare the entries for two dinners with menus already in the collection.
Oscar Tschirky was born in 1866 in the Swiss city of La Chaux-de-Fonds in the Jura mountains. On the day he arrived in 1883, he got a job as a busboy at the Hoffman House, one of the finest hotels in New York. In addition to being fluent in French and German, the young restaurateur displayed a talent for cosseting the rich and powerful industrialists. He rose rapidly in the upper tiers of the hospitality trade, becoming the headwaiter of the private dining rooms at Delmonico’s in 1888. It was during that year he began to keep a record of the special menus he planned.1 In 1893, Tschirky asked his aristocratic patrons for references so that he could secure a similar position at the new Waldorf Hotel where he would become known by his first name, either as “Oscar of the Waldorf” or as “Mr. Oscar” to those who worked for him.
When the Astoria Hotel was completed in 1897, it was immediately connected to the four-year-old Waldorf, creating the largest hostelry in the world. At the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Oscar orchestrated luncheons, teas, dinners, late suppers, and huge banquets, much as he had done at Delmonico’s, only on a greater scale. In addition, he now assumed the mantle of being the social gatekeeper of high society.
The à la carte menu below shows that the ball-goers covered their own expenses for refreshments and dinner. This card reflects the usual mix of French, English, and German dishes, as well as more pricey options like Chesapeake terrapin and Canvasback duck, the highly-prized American delicacies that were becoming increasingly scarce.
Even though menus provide additional historical evidence, account books offer a more holistic view by documenting all of the social activity in a given period, including the special events that did not warrant a printed menu. One of the things you notice when paging through this compendium is the degree to which the Waldorf-Astoria was a gathering place for women at the turn of the last century. When put into context, the large banquets that consigned women to the balcony may have been progressive at the time, an interesting idea to be further explored.
1. Karl Schriftgiesser, Oscar of the Waldorf. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1943. This journal, which may be the only extant copy from the series, contained a loose leaf dated November 1903 from an earlier notebook.