Monday, December 11, 2017

Dancing at Reisenweber’s

New York City, 

Reisenweber’s played an important role in American popular culture during the second decade of the last century. Today, it is mostly remembered as the place where jazz was introduced to a wider audience in 1917. However, Reisenweber’s already made history five years earlier when the dance craze took New York by storm. It was the first restaurant to provide its patrons with space to dance and kept the party going through a steady stream of promotions. The energy and spirit of this early period of rapid social change is conveyed in an audio slideshow showing over ninety invitations, admission tickets, advertising cards, special notices, beverage lists and menus from 1912 to 1915. Although this chronology of ephemera primarily reflects the main location on Eighth Avenue at Columbus Circle, some pieces come from the properties it managed on Coney Island—the Brighton Beach Casino and the Shelburne Hotel—and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915, which it catered. Even at the Follies, the theater-goers tangoed and turkey-trotted before and after performances and during intermission. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Emancipation Banquet

St. Paul, Minnesota 

In January of 1888, a group of gentlemen held a dinner at a private club in St. Paul, Minnesota to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. This wartime executive order, issued by President Lincoln, freed the slaves in the Confederacy. The menu for the event included not only the bill of fare and list of toasts but also a remarkable seating chart. This chart featured the names of participants as well as leaders who were remembered for their roles in the struggle for freedom, symbolically present in spirit.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Mission of Mercy


The departure of the steamship on September 12, 1914 was a memorable sight, as 126 American Red Cross nurses stood in their white caps and gray uniforms along the rails where the sea wind blew open their red-lined capes, creating a line of scarlet on the side of the vessel. World War I had erupted a little over a month earlier and now they, along with 30 surgeons and boxes of medical equipment, were sailing from New York on what was called a “mercy mission.” Striving to stay neutral, the United States deployed the American Red Cross to provide medical aid to both sides of the conflict in Europe. Once on board, they were organized into units that would establish military hospitals in seven locations—Paignton, England; Pau, France; Kiev, Russia; Kosel and Gleiwitz, Germany; Vienna, Austria; and Budapest, Hungary.2 A battered menu bears witness to this largely-forgotten expedition that embodied a humanitarian ideal which was ahead of its time. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017


New York City, 

The vault at Pfaffs where the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse 
While on the walk immediately overhead pass the myriad feet of Broadway…                
—Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman went to Pfaff’s almost every night between 1858 and 1862 when working on the early editions of Leaves of Grass.2 He occasionally read one of his latest poems to the writers and artists who regularly assembled in this underground beer hall. The free-spirited and unconventional group was brought together by Henry Clapp, editor of the Saturday Press and a champion of Whitman’s work. Other habitués included actor Edwin Booth, painter Elihu Vedder, psychedelic drug pioneer Fitz Hugh Ludlow, cartoonist Thomas Nast, and humorist Artemus Ward, now regarded as America’s first stand-up comedian. And since Pfaff’s was one of the few saloons that welcomed women, Clapp’s coterie was diverse for its time. Writer Ada Clare was a charter member of this artistic clique as was Adah Isaacs Menken whose “naked lady” routine made her the highest earning actress of the era. Given the importance of Pfaff’s, I was thrilled when a menu recently came to light. My first impression was how different it looked from those that previously catered to the city’s literati. This was truly a German menu, reflecting the arrival of new attitudes and foods from Europe. Interestingly, it marked a pivotal moment in our creative past. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Guest of Honor

New York City, 

Booker T. Washington signed the cover of this menu from a dinner in his honor at a club in New York called the Aldine Association in January 1901.1 The autograph adds a personal dimension to this memento from what must have been an inspiring affair. It was hosted by The Outlook, a weekly magazine that had recently published autobiographical pieces by Washington. By the time of this occasion, the essays had been rewritten and were about to be published in book form under the title Up from Slavery. In the autobiography, the famed educator recounted his experiences as a slave child during the Civil War, the difficulties he overcame to get an education, and his work establishing vocational schools. Although the book sold well, events would soon show that its appearance did little to soften the lingering racial prejudices of many whites in the South.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Vermont Breakfast Party

New York City,

The Limited Editions Club awarded its fifth gold metal at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in November 1949. According to the rules, the award was given to an American author of a book published during the last five years that the judges believed “most likely to attain the stature of a classic.” The previous two winners were Ernest Hemingway for “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in 1941 and E. B. White for “One Man’s Meat” in 1944. While the eight-page booklet from the presentation ceremony in 1949 does not reveal who won that year, it does contain an interesting menu from a talented writer in his own right. 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Echoes of the Jazz Age


“The Jazz Age is over,” declared novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1931, nine years after he coined the phrase. The prosperous era began in about November 1918, when the First World War ended, and continued unabated until the stock market crashed in October 1929.1 This period of cultural transformation marked the birth of modern America. Everyday life was broadly transformed by automobiles, telephones, motion pictures, radio programs, and household electricity. However, the arrival of modernity also sparked a powerful backlash. The conservative counterassault manifested itself in the anti-radical hysteria of the Red Scare, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the ratification of National Prohibition, the passage of stricter immigration quotas, and the rise of Fundamentalism. Fifty menus reveal facets of this vast, complicated story. Some of them recall forgotten events; others provide unwitting evidence of societal issues that are with us to this day. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Suprême of Shark

New York City, 

This comic illustration appeared on a menu from a dinner held by the Ichthyophagous Club in 1884.1 Active in New York from 1880 to 1887, this social group of prominent men dined once a year on unpopular types of seafood in order to “overcome prejudice directed towards many kinds of fish, which are rarely eaten, because their excellence is unknown.”The club comprised ichthyologists, who worked in the branch of zoology dealing with fishes, as well as naturalists, philanthropists, and gourmets. In fact, the seal in the cartoon is holding a bottle of Cordon Rouge champagne.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Spectacle of Horror

New York City, 

It was a bright, cloudless morning on June 15, 1904 when a sidewheel passenger steamboat named the General Slocum caught fire on the East River. Ten minutes earlier, it had departed from Lower Manhattan on an end-of-school-year trip to a picnic ground on the Long Island shore. As the steamboat passed East 97th Street, puffs of smoke started rising through the wooden floorboards. Rotten fire hoses thwarted attempts to put out the blaze; the lifeboats were tied up and inaccessible; and the life preservers were defective and of no use. One newspaper reported, it was “a spectacle of horror beyond words to express—a great vessel all in flames, sweeping forward in the sunlight, within sight of the crowded city, while her helpless, screaming hundreds were roasted alive or swallowed up in waves.” Almost all of the estimated 1,021 people who died were immigrant mothers and small children, hundreds of whom were never found. A rare menu from the General Slocum is dated the day after the disaster, one of the worst in American history.

Monday, January 23, 2017

O Sweet Grows the Orange

1852 & 1859 

The Burns Club of Boston once held banquet on January 25 each year to commemorate the birth of Robert Burns. When the birthday fell on a Sunday, they celebrated the following day, as shown by this menu from the Stackpole House in 1852, two years after the club was established.