Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Class of 1888

West Point,

When the Class of 1888 graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in June of that year, there were so few cadets that the Daily Graphic in New York City had no difficulty arranging their portraits on a two-page spread.1 Five rare menus transport us back to West Point in the 1880s. In addition to providing a glimpse of the food customs, some of the menus convey a deeper meaning about the long cycle of mourning caused by a sudden death, adding a poignant dimension to these minor historic documents.

The rhythm of life at West Point was governed by the cadets forming on the north side of the academic building three times each day and marching to the Mess Hall.2 Without losing this measure of military discipline, an effort was made in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to make life at the Academy less Spartan. As part of this effort, a German-born chef named William Muschenheim proposed a plan in 1880 to improve the quality of the food and reduce costs. He was hired to manage the cadet mess hall, and by all accounts, was successful. Four years later, when the improvements were firmly in place, Muschenheim returned to New York City where he would become a renowned restaurateur.3 In 1887, Harper’s magazine reported, “Time was when both table fare and service were far inferior to what they are today, and far shabbier than they should have been at the time; but now the Mess Hall challenges inspection…”4

The Thanksgiving menu below from 1884 was saved by Charles Victor Donaldson whose likeness can be found in the second row of the class picture, third from the right. Born in Sweden, Donaldson immigrated to the United States with his family and grew up on a farm in Boone County, Iowa. He arrived at West Point in July 1883 and finally graduated with the Class of 1888, ranking 36th of the forty-four cadets. Spending five years at West Point was not unusual; nine members of that class began in 1883.5

The daily menu below from 1885 is neatly written in Spencerian script, a widely-taught American style favored for its speed and legibility. The menu shows that a different meat dish was served at each meal, such as roast pig for Sunday dinner and lamb chops for breakfast on Monday morning. It reportedly took time for the first-year cadets called “plebes” to become accustomed to the calorific diet.

A point of comparison is provided by the Thanksgiving menu below from 1916 which includes a daily menu from 1820 that was transcribed “from an old record.” This bill of fare confirms that the food before the Civil War was intentionally similar to U.S. Army field rations. The monotonous diet, mostly comprising bull beef, boiled potatoes and bread, lacked variety. Although the fare changed daily, the menu was repeated weekly. To supplement the officially bland diet, cadets occasionally went into town to eat or pilfered food from the kitchen which they prepared in their quarters. Such non-regulation food was called “hash.” According to lore, one of the most talented hash-makers was William Tecumseh Sherman, Class of 1840. 

Dinner in the 1880s began at one o’clock and was scheduled for forty minutes, allowing time for cheerful and unrestrained conversation. Still, a cadet was assigned at each table to ensure the rules of conduct were observed. Cadet Corporal Charles Donaldson submitted the official slip of paper below on April 27, 1886, confirming that all violations had been reported during his tour of duty at the Mess Hall. 

The report is addressed to Cadet Captain John J. Pershing, president of the Class of 1886. Pershing commanded the Corps of Cadets on August 5, 1885 when they presented arms as the funeral train of General Ulysses S. Grant slowly passed through West Point. Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Forces in the First World War, would be promoted to the highest possible rank—General of the Armies.6

The Thanksgiving menu below from 1886 is an example of “artistic printing,” a style adopted by letterpress printers in the late nineteenth century. In order to make their work more attractive, printers mixed ornamental typefaces and quirky embellishments that imitated the intricacy of more expensive processes like lithography and engraving. This menu was printed by the USMA Press. 

The menus below for Christmas and New Year's Day in 1886-1887 are also printed in the artistic style. The 4- x 5-inch cards exhibit six different typeface designs created by the  German-born cutter Herman Ihlenburg at the MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan foundry in Philadelphia.7 As an example, the heading “Christmas Dinner” was printed using an 1884 typeface named Arboret and the border was pieced together using characters from a series called Orient Border No. 90.8 

The above holiday menus were saved by Cadet Robert R. Chadeayne who died from an undisclosed illness in October of 1887, eight months before graduation. As a result, he was not shown in the class picture published in the New York Daily Graphic. Chadeayne's personal effects were returned to his family home in Cornwall, New York, where they remained undisturbed in a trunk for over a hundred years.

As it happened, the central-Iowa farm boy, Cadet Charles Donaldson, also died young. After graduating in 1888, he was assigned frontier duty as a second lieutenant in the 24th Infantry at Fort Grant, Arizona. In July of 1890, he took a leave of absence to visit his wife of less than a year who had just given birth to a baby girl in Santa Ana, California.9 Within a few days of his arrival, Donaldson went to the landing at Newport Beach to greet his sister whom he had not seen in five years. While waiting for the steamship to arrive from San Francisco, he saw two teenage girls swimming nearby who were being pulled out to sea by the strong rip tide. Rushing to their rescue, he pulled one of the girls to safety but drowned while attempting to save the second one. News of Donaldson’s heroic death came as a shock as it traveled through “The Long Gray Line.” 

When a menu is saved as a memento, it is often mingled with other tokens like tickets, invitations, and newspaper clippings. Having little value or personal meaning for others, such keepsakes are often discarded when a person dies. However, more than a century passed before the scraps of paper saved by Chadeayne and Donaldson appeared in the ephemera market. The delay may reflect how unresolved grief slowly dissipates in a family that passes down the tragic story from one generation to the next. 

1. Daily Graphic, 16 June 1888. The Daily Graphic, an evening tabloid published in New York City from 1873 to September 1889, was the first American newspaper with daily illustrations.
2. Officially named Grant Hall, this cadet mess hall was completed in 1852, the same year Robert E. Lee became superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy.
3. William C. Muschenheim returned to New York City to become the steward at the Lotos Club, and later went to the New York Athletic Club when it relocated to a new building on 55th Street and Sixth Avenue. In 1889, Muschenheim opened a large restaurant named the Arena on West 31st Street, near Broadway. Capping his career, he became the proprietor of the new Hotel Astor in 1904 when it opened on Times Square. Muschenheim was fondly remembered by the USMA alumni who held their reunion dinners in New York at the Hotel Astor. The long relationship was expressed by the saying: “Muschenheim belongs to the army and the army belongs to Muschenheim.” New York Times, 26 October 1918.
4. Charles King, “Cadet Life at West Point,” Harper’s, July 1887.
5. In the late nineteenth century, more than half of the incoming cadets typically resigned, or were discharged, within the first two years.
6. George Washington was posthumously appointed to the six-star rank of General of Armies in 1976 as part of the American Bicentennial celebrations.
7. MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan (MS&J) was the first permanent type foundry, issued the first catalog, and grew to become the largest foundry, operating longer than any other. During the nineteenth-century boom in publishing and advertising, MS&J was one of twenty to thirty firms (the number fluctuated with mergers) in America that manufactured large quantities of typeface (sold by the pound) in diverse and expressive styles. Reflecting the visual culture of the young and growing country, MS&J’s enormous specimen book in 1868 comprised 603 pages. Doug Clouse, MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan, Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, Delaware, 2008.
8. Herman Ihlenburg was one of the most important type-designers in the United States. Trained as an apprentice at a typeface foundry in Berlin, he began work in 1866 at MS&J where he drew and cut over eighty alphabets (including thirty-one borders) in more than three hundred sizes, or fonts. He is thoguht to have cut over 32,000 punches by hand during his thirty-year career. William E. Loy, Nineteenth Century American Designers and Engravers of Type (1906), edited by Stephen O. Saxe and Alastair M. Johnston, Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, Delaware, 2009.
9. Charles Donaldson married Mary Elizabeth Pitman in Boone County, Iowa on 23 October 1889. Although newspaper accounts of Donaldson’s death made no mention of the recent birth of his daughter, records show that Charlotte Victoria Donaldson was born of this marriage on 7 July 1890, nine days before he arrived in California. 


Anonymous said...

Henry, I like your final paragraph on mementos and their journey to the marketplace.

Andrea said...

Wonderful post! I loved the explanation as to what constituted "hash" at the Academy.

Jeanne Schinto said...

Oh, how interesting, and poignant, Henry. As it happens, we have new friends, a married couple, who are both West Point grads. One is graduating from Harvard Business School in a couple of days, the other is at Harvard Law School. I'm going to send them the link to this great piece of writing. Thank you for posting!