The buffet table at Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ball stretched over 250 feet. On the menu were oyster stew, leg of veal, venison, quail, and six flavors of ice cream. After the president and his group of cabinet members celebrated, the rest of the guests were allowed inside. They reportedly stormed the buffet table and food went everywhere.
Six weeks later, at a hotel in Springfield, Massachusetts, the menu was darker, with a black border printed around the items, which included turkey with cranberry sauce and cold lobster with lettuce. The date was April 16, one day after Lincoln’s assassination.
Both menus are on display at the Grolier Club, a rare book company on New York’s Upper East Side. The pieces are part of a new exhibition titled A Century of Dining Out: The American Story in Menus, 1841-1941.
More than 200 menus are included in the exhibit, which charts cultural changes and norms seen through the first hundred years of menus in the United States. These pieces are all from a larger collection owned by Henry Voigt, a curator based in Wilmington, Delaware.
Voigt began purchasing menus in the 1990s on internet auction sites and from individual collectors. Today he owns more than 10,000 vintage menus.
“These menus were big documents promoting an establishment,” Voigt said. The first fine-dining restaurants served what one British visitor in a Boston social circle called “Frenchised English cuisine.” There was game, elaborate desserts, and vegetable side dishes. The rate tended not to differ much regionally: when people went out, they knew exactly what they were getting.
Voigt’s collection begins in 1841, when menus first came to America. The idea began in Paris in the late 18th century but didn’t catch on in the United States until the mid-19th century.
“The menu reflected what it meant to be a civil society at the time,” Voigt said. “No matter where they went, Americans knew what to expect when they sat down to dinner.”
At first, Americans ate dinner in communal seating and at set times: menus listed when breakfast, lunch, or dinner was served. “Hotels or restaurants strike a gong or ring a bell to summon people into the dining room,” Voigt said.
Private tables, à la carte menus, and flexible meal times were other European imports that didn’t reach the United States until the turn of the century.
Men had their share of social clubs; women who wanted to dine without a male companion had fewer spaces. The most ornate and famous was Taylor’s Saloon in New York, which had a 56-page “food list” dazzled with mother-of-pearl bits. It looks more like a coffee table book than a menu. Inside, women would see advertisements for hotspots like Tiffany’s and Barnum’s Museum, as well as a list of what they would be consuming that night: oysters, eggs, ice cream, wine and beer.
“At the time, they wanted to have a separate, female-friendly space,” Voigt said. “What was thought to be a grand and fully decorated place. Taylor’s main dining room had very high ceilings with frescoes and red-painted Corinthian columns with gold trim. There were bubbling fountains, large mirrors and black walnut tables.
Far less opulent are the Confederate menus. The South faced severe food shortages and rationing during the Civil War, and Voigt said everyone felt the “pink” of this shortage, even the upper class.
“The keynote of federal menus is hunger,” Voigt said. One of a hotel in Richmond, VA offers a slim selection of roasted vegetables, fish, and cornmeal. There are no desserts or drinks available. One ham and greens salad on the menu contains pokeweed, a toxic plant that must be boiled three times to be safe enough to eat.
Voigt believes vintage menus show how people are able to come together, even under the most unlikely of circumstances. Consider one from a Lunar New Year celebration — hosted at San Quentin Jail in 1932. It shows how the guards communicated with each other when they were off hours: That night they ate sturgeon soup, egg foo young, and roast pork with applesauce.
Among the menus Voigt believes have the greatest impact on museum staff and visitors is that of the Ellis Island “immigrant dining room.” European migrants who arrived to be processed in the United States received a free meal which was paid for by the steamship companies. On June 5, 1932, breakfast included boiled rice with milk, cooked peaches and coffee. Lunch (which was called dinner at the time) included mock turtle soup, mutton ragout, and a dessert called “freedom pudding”. Roast beef, green peppers and applesauce were served for dinner. All women and children received an extra glass of milk.
“When you read the testimonies of people who have come to Ellis Island, they say they felt like America was welcoming them with food,” Voigt said. “It was one of the first ways they knew everything was going to be okay.”
A Century of Dining Out: The American Story in Menus, 1841-1941 is on view April 26-July 29 at the Grolier Club in New York