Sunday, November 1, 2020

Plenty Sight-seeing!

Savannah, Georgia 

The message inscribed on the back of this postcard from the De Soto Hotel in Savannah, Georgia closes with the exclamation, “Plenty sight-seeing!” Unfortunately, the guest did not mention what he or she had seen in 1907 that prompted the enthusiasm. Tourist sights change over time based on the evolving interests of visitors. A menu from this hotel provides a clue, revealing at least one of the local attractions at the turn of the last century. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Artistic License

Washington, D.C., 

One of the last glittering events of the antebellum era occurred in February of 1859 when a ball was held for British ambassador Francis Napier and his wife.
1 The ballroom at Willards’ Hotel was festooned with flags and adorned with portraits of George Washington and Queen Victoria for the occasion. At midnight, a curtain was raised to reveal the adjoining dining room where buffet tables were laden with delicacies and decorated with ornate sugar sculptures. Despite the sumptuous display however, there was some question about the quality of the cuisine, at least according to the correspondent from the New York Times who reported it was “an intolerably bad supper.” For journalists who wanted to hail the ball as a triumph, describing the problematic supper would require a fair amount of artistic license. Americans had become sensitive to the negative perception held by many Europeans about the eating habits in the United States. The Washington Evening Star put a positive spin on this gastronomic inferiority complex, reporting “the supper and wines were upon a scale of magnificence…rarely seen at such an entertainment on this side of the Atlantic.” Another publication employed so much hyperbole that it unwittingly articulated a new way to define the national cuisine. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

President Harrison’s Great Railroad Journey

The South and West 
April 14 – May 15, 1891 

In the spring of 1891, two years after being in office, President Benjamin Harrison embarked on a month-long political tour by rail through the South to the West Coast.1, 2 He was accompanied by First Lady Caroline Harrison, their daughter Mrs. Mary McKee, Postmaster General John Wanamaker, Secretary of Agriculture Jeremiah Rusk, and eleven other close officials and family members.3 Thirty-one menus from the train convey the length and rhythm of this unprecedented journey through numerous states, some of which had only recently entered the Union.4 

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

“Bet-a-Million” Gates

New York City, 

John W. Gates (1855-1911) was a steel magnate, financier, and gambler. He became widely known as “Bet-a-Million” Gates after falsely claiming to have bet a million dollars on a horse race in England. Nevertheless, he did gamble large amounts and would bet on practically everything. From 1894 onwards, Gates maintained a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where he conducted high-stakes poker parties and baccarat games. A hotel account book shows that the storied capitalist and his wife were in residence on Christmas in 1905 when they hosted two dinners. Oddly, the cost of the meals was not recorded. 

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Three Sorosis Luncheons

New York City, 

The Waldorf Hotel was built with women in mind. Proprietor George Bolt’s wife, Louise, was herself a hôtelière who supervised its interior design, adding homey touches she thought would appeal to women. Astonishingly, when the Waldorf Hotel opened in 1893, it did not have a bar, then a male sanctuary at such establishments. The hostelry finally acquired one in 1897 when it was connected to the Astor Hotel and renamed the Waldorf-Astoria. One of the most popular features of the enormous hotel was its crystalline Palm Garden which proved to be an ideal setting for the latest customs of “lunching out” and having “afternoon tea”. What is more, the management tried to create a hospitable environment for women. In addition to employing the standard rule that the customer is always right, the staff was instructed to “never speak abruptly to a woman guest nor be indifferent to her complaints.”1 An account book from the social season of 1905-1906 shows the hotel was successful in attracting all manner of women’s groups, including Sorosis, the first professional women’s club in the United States. A look at three of their luncheons reveals the degree to which the hotel wanted to retain the business of this prestigious association. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Property of Mr. Oscar

New York City,

This manuscript account book, bearing a typed label reading “Property of Mr. Oscar,” recently came into the collection. 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 to compare the entries for two dinners with menus already in the collection. 

Saturday, April 4, 2020

No There There

ca. 1880

Novelist Gertrude Stein returned to the United States in 1934 after a 30-year absence. While crisscrossing the country on a speaking tour, the celebrated Parisian expatriate visited Oakland to see the farm she grew up on and the house where she once lived. After learning that her childhood home had been razed and the farmland developed, Stein famously wrote “there is no there there.” The significant places in California that helped define her no longer existed. The Stein family had moved to Oakland in 1880, when she was six, and lived for the first year at the Tubbs Hotel. Situated just east of Lake Merritt, the 200-room hostelry had some prominent guests in its day.1 Former president Ulysses S. Grant and his wife dined there in 1879 while on the final leg of their trip around the world. And author Robert Louis Stevenson stayed at the Tubbs Hotel from March to April 1880, the same year the Stein family was in residence. Nevertheless, a table d’hôte menu from the period reveals that it was a middling establishment where the meals were basically the same as those at other hotels in its class. Indeed, there was “no there” in the dining rooms of American hotels where the standardized cuisine reflected few regional influences. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Willis Morgan

ca. 1928

Willis Morgan was among the several hundred thousand African-American soldiers sent to France during the First World War. Born in Marshall, Texas in 1877, Morgan worked as a chef in railroad dining cars and Harvey House restaurants prior to becoming a mess sergeant in the U.S. Army. He served in the Philippines, on the Mexico border, and finally on the Western Front. After the Armistice, Morgan settled in Paris as part of the small but steady stream of Black Americans attracted by wartime memories of French racial tolerance. He opened the Chicago Inn at 31 Avenue Bourdonnais in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Later renamed the Chicago-Texas Inn, the restaurant was a popular tourist destination in the Jazz Age. A scarce menu from the late 1920s reveals the down-home American cuisine at this welcoming restaurant where Morgan’s French-born wife worked the cash register while their pet cat looked on from his favorite spot nearby. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Waitress at Duval


French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir portrayed a waitress from one of several Parisian restaurants established by a butcher named Pierre Louis Duval who began by using meat scraps to make broths.1 The Établissements Duval were commonly referred to as the “Bouillons Duval,” or “Établissements de Bouillon,” in reference to this signature dish. Founded in 1854, the business expanded to about a dozen locations by the end of the following decade. The chain almost exclusively employed women servers who wore black dresses, half hidden by aprons and snow-white bibs, and caps.2 The Baedeker guidebook (1881) advised travelers that Duval offered a limited and affordable menu to customers who were “waited on by women, soberly garbed, and not unlike sisters of charity.” In much the same vein, a journalist from the New York Times wrote that the “neat, nun-like uniforms” reminded him of what the cooks wore in the kitchen of the House of Commons.3,4 Nevertheless, “Renoir imparted to his comely model an unaffected grace,” notes the Metropolitan Museum of Art on its gallery label. Three menus recall these low-cost restaurants that were renowned for their waitresses.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Breakfast on the Mississippi

Steamer James Montgomery
ca. 1858 

Steamboats played a major role in transporting passengers and freight on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. By the 1830s, it was common to see more than 150 steamboats at the St. Louis levee at one time. The James Montgomery was one such paddle steamer. Built in 1856 at New Albany, Indiana (on the Ohio River opposite Louisville), this wood-hull, side-wheel steamboat was 270 feet long and powered by six boilers. A menu from about 1858 shows that large breakfasts were among the joys of being a cabin passenger on this antebellum riverboat.