Sunday, August 27, 2023

Music on the Menu


“Music with dinner is an insult both to the cook and the violinist,” observed English writer G. K. Chesterton. Nevertheless, music has become an inescapable part of eating outside the home. While menus almost never reveal what was played in the background of restaurants and hotel dining rooms, they reflect the world of music in a myriad of other ways. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Where the Immigration Inspectors Dined

New York City, 

The immigration station on Ellis Island reopened in 1900, following a devastating fire three years earlier. In 1902, substantial changes were made to operations, including the posting of “Kindness and Consideration” signs as reminders to unfriendly and disrespectful members of the workforce that included inspectors, interpreters, doctors, nurses, and social workers. Between 1900 and 1918, ten million people entered the United States through Ellis Island. Unlike the nineteenth century, when immigrants mostly arrived from northern and western Europe, the early twentieth century witnessed a surge from
 eastern Europe, czarist Russia, and southern Italy. Menus from employee outings in 1904 and 1905 reflect the ethnic cuisines of the newcomers, which is not to imply that everyone on the staff supported the immigration laws then in force. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Impressions of American Hotels


Max O’Rell was the pen name of Léon Paul Blouet, a well-known French author and journalist in the late nineteenth century. Beginning in the fall of 1887,  O'Rell visited the United States for six months, traveling as far west as Chicago. After a second tour in 1890, he published A Frenchman in America in which he humorously described American manners and customs with acerbity. Chapter IV, titled “Impressions of American Hotels,” is reproduced below with some of the original illustrations and relevant menus from the period.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

When Maria Parloa Visited Tilden Ladies’ Seminary

New Hampshire,

Tilden Ladies’ Seminary in West Lebanon, New Hampshire was a progressive institution established in 1855 when most female boarding schools focused on activities like needlework and music. Two pieces of ephemera from 1881 provide a rare glimpse of this school and a guest lecturer named Maria Parloa, one of the country’s first celebrity chefs. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

An Early Chidren's Menu


Menus that were composed, designed, and printed exclusively for children first appeared in the 1920s. They were initially adopted by department stores and railroad dining cars and eventually became common in restaurants after the Second World War. A hand-written menu from a seven-year-old birthday party in February of 1885 reveals what children’s menus might have looked like had they existed in public dining spaces in the late nineteenth century. 

Saturday, November 6, 2021

The 15-Cent Houses


Almost everyone living in large cities ate in a restaurant from time to time during the late nineteenth century. Unless poverty stricken,  average citizens patronized small eateries that served English-style fare at rock-bottom prices. There was nothing fancy about the food or the service. Dubbed 15-cent houses, these meat-and-potatoes restaurants seldom warranted attention in the press and exceedingly few menus have survived. One source of historical evidence is provided by handbills and business cards advertising specific dishes. A selection of such ephemera from ordinary restaurants in Boston 
from 1875 to 1885 reveals the food customs of the middling and working classes, especially when compared to similar material from other dining niches of society. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Charles Dickens in Boston

1842 & 1925

Charles Dickens was enthusiastically fêted when he visited the United States in 1842 and 1867-68.  For many years afterward, these grand affairs lingered in the collective memory of the novelist’s most ardent admirers, as revealed by a menu from a dinner of the Dickens’ Fellowship in Boston in 1925.