Friday, February 13, 2015

Nathaniel White’s Birthday Party

Henry County, Iowa

Menus from small dinners in private venues during the nineteenth century are few and far between. They seem to have first appeared in the late-1860s, when womens groups began to occasionally engage the services of local printers to produce menus for church fundraisers and other social gatherings, becoming one of the ways they could make their events a little more special. Since much of the information about these get-togethers was already known by the participants, such menus often lack essential details about time and place, making them difficult to decipher. Therefore, I had low expectations when I started to research a menu from a birthday party in 1878 for a farmer named Nathaniel White. Nevertheless, with a little bit of luck, I was able to determine the identity of the celebrant, the location, and possibly even the reason why menus were printed for this occasion. One of the most interesting things that I learned about this pioneer was something that happened many years earlier. 

Nathaniel White moved to Iowa in the early 1830s when it was still a territory. Using his skills as a cabinet maker, he made furniture for the new State House in Burlington, before taking up farming near Mt. Pleasant. At about the time of his sixty-seventh birthday party in 1878, White was diagnosed with “Bright’s disease,” a term then used for various kidney diseases. Haunted by premonitions of his death, White reportedly became depressed by his illness. He was popular with friends and family alike, and so it appears that every effort was made to pick up his spirits, including having a menu printed for the celebration.

The bill of fare is inscribed with some last-minute additions, presumably food brought by visitors from neighboring farms. As a result, the menu provides a full account of this festive dinner. Among the numerous desserts, there are four cold-weather pies—apple, mince, pumpkin, and squash. It may seem unusual to see the word “celery” scribbled on the menu as a special dish, for we now take this difficult-to-grow vegetable for granted. However, in the nineteenth century, it was a wintertime luxury. Before the first frost, celery was carefully dug up with the roots intact and replanted in boxes of sand in the root cellar, or set close together in a trench in a cold frame, where it could last for many weeks. 

When Nathaniel White died in 1883, his obituary recounted that the most memorable moment of his life happened fifty years earlier when traveling in Iowa to stake a claim. It was on that trip that he saw Chief Black Hawk, the legendary brave who fought on the side of the British during the War of 1812, and later, led a band of Sauk and Fox warriors in the Black Hawk War. Interestingly, both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis participated as young men in the brief Black Hawk War, thereby securing its place in American lore.


Jan Whitaker said...

Seeing "Cold Water" on the menu makes me think he was an ardent temperance adherent.

Henry Voigt said...

Yes, I agree that putting "cold water" on the menu suggests that they were temperance advocates, especially considering that the dinner was held in February.

Cathy said...

Oh, how very interesting since Nathaniel White was my gggg grandfather!