Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Inimitable Menus


A little over two decades ago, staffers for an incoming president were looking for White House menus from the turn of the last century, attempting to imitate Theodore Roosevelt’s style, although not his substance; ironically, the ideals of the new administration were unlike those of the Progressive Era ushered in by Roosevelt. Still, it was understandable why the politicos wanted to re-create the aura of a time when American confidence was running high. While their efforts proved futile—printed menus were not then used at the White House—Theodore Roosevelt was enthusiastically fêted by the citizenry whenever he was away from Washington. His popularity is revealed by the size, complexity, and sheer exuberance of the menus from these occasions, as shown by four examples spanning his presidency. 

Coining the term “bully pulpit,” Theodore Roosevelt spoke out on domestic issues like consumer protection and the conservation of natural resources, his single greatest gift to posterity. In October 1902 he was honored at the Mercantile Club in St. Louis. The menu below was made by Mermod & Jaccard, a local jeweler and stationer. Two American flags on dowels are affixed to the front of the gilded leather cover; and on the back, a pole-mounted canvas tent marked “San Juan, July 1, 1898” refers to his up-hill charge in the Spanish-American War that made him a national hero. (The extensive guest list is not shown.) 

While on a hunting trip in the Mississippi Delta in November of that year, Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear that the guides tied to a willow tree, deeming it unsportsmanlike. The incident inspired a cartoon that led to the creation of the teddy bear. 

Images of the iconic stuffed toy began to appear on menus during Roosevelt’s epic national tour in the spring of 1903. The arts-and-crafts menu below from the Palace Hotel in San Francisco was created by the O’Hara & Livermore Studio of Applied Arts on Sutter Street. The hand-bound wooden cover bears a watercolor by Albertine Randall Wheelan who also illustrated the bill of fare and program. Roosevelt was reelected by a landslide the following year. 

Enroute to San Antonio for a Rough Riders reunion in April 1905, Roosevelt visited Dallas where he paraded through the streets in a carriage drawn by a team of white horses. By contrast, the menu from the Oriental Hotel that evening shows a U. S. Army wagon being pulled by mules, recalling his participation in the Spanish-American War. 
The slogan “A Square Deal for Every Man” reflects his efforts to forge a more equitable society. A mechanical feature allows the tailboard to be lowered, revealing a portrait of the 26th President who was then 45 years old.  

Temporarily keeping his promise to not seek a third term, Roosevelt watched as his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, was sworn into office on March 4, 1909. Less than two weeks later, Roosevelt and his son Kermit went on a year-long safari to hunt big game in Africa. Not since Ulysses S. Grant set sail on his world tour in 1877 had there been so much excitement about the departure of a former president. The steamship Hamburg of the Hamburg-America Line transported the Roosevelts to Naples on the first leg of their journey. The menu below, which measures over a foot in height, comes from the so-called “farewell dinner” that celebrated their last night at sea on April 4; the exact date is not shown because the menu was printed in advance by the South Publishing Press in New York. Unlike the red-white-and-blue ribbons that often decorated presidential menus, the ribbon on this one is black, white, and red, the tricolors of the Imperial German Flag. Theodore Roosevelt was no longer the President of the United States.

Roosevelt “left behind a folk consensus that he had been the most powerfully positive American leader since Abraham Lincoln,” wrote historian Edmund Morris in Theodore Rex. “He had spent much of his two terms crossing and recrossing the country, east and west, south and north, reminding anyone who would listen to him that he embodied all America’s variety and the whole of its unity…Uncounted men, women, and children who had crowded round the presidential caboose to stare and listen to him now carried, forever etched in memory, the image of his receding grin and wave.”

1 comment:

Michael Peich said...

Henry--Another excellent essay replete with wonderful illustrations. You continue to hold my attention, and I always look forward to reading what you share with the world.