What’s for dinner? Answers through the ages from the NYPL

Lager Beer Saloon Menu, 1900
Kosher Victorian Restaurant menu, 1900 from NYPL menu collection: http://menus.nypl.org/menus/15689

We’ve all heard that avocado toast is the centerpiece of the millennial brunch, but have you ever wondered what your (great-)grandparents might have ordered when they were your age? Or maybe seeing the en vogue cocktails served at the Tavern on the Green in Central Park in years gone by might pique your interest? If you’re a history major or buff, perhaps you’d be keen to know how rationing during the war years affected restaurants? The NYPL’s Menu Collection (one of their many digital projects) can answer all those questions, plus raise a few more (mock turtle soup, anyone?).

Rationing during WWI (source)

The NYPL’s menu collection includes 45,000 menus dating from the 1840s to the present. The “What’s on the menu?” acquisitions “originated through the energetic efforts of Miss Frank E. Buttolph (1850-1924), who, in 1900, began to collect menus on the Library’s behalf. Miss Buttolph added more than 25,000 menus to the collection, before leaving the Library in 1924. The collection has continued to grow through additional gifts of graphics, gastronomic, topical, or sociological interest, especially but not exclusively New York-related.1 Although the project has been partially digitized for some years now, a recent article inspired me to pursue this fascinating peek into the history one of the most fundamental aspects of life: food.

One of the earliest menus in the collection is from Toronto’s Mart Ackerman’s Saloon, where if you were to visit in 1856, you could have had a warm meal at any hour and your choice of one of 37 punches or 13 cobblers for 12½ cents apiece. Though the prices, largely in cents here and throughout a large portion of the collection, seem impossibly low to modern eyes, adjusted to current values, restaurant fares roughly comparable to what you’d find today.

For example, in 1907 you could enjoy “roast prime ribs of beef” at the Fraunces Tavern (where George Washington gave his farewell address in 1783) for 50 cents, which then had the equivalent purchasing power of around $13 today. If you were to make your way down to FiDi to visit the same restaurant this weekend, you could find an entree of braised short ribs with fingerling potatoes listed at $14.

Food and menus have of course evolved over time. Multi-course meals were de rigueur in the posh dining rooms of 19th and early 20th century. One quirk to the contemporary eye: If you were to glance at the dessert course on many menus, you might think that earlier generations were particularly restrained, health-conscious, or just plain no fun (think nuts, fruit, and perhaps olives). While the relative nutrition of historical diets is certainly open to evaluation, you just need to look out for a pastry or pudding heading to discover more indulgent options like pie, cake, ice cream, and the perhaps less familiar wine jellies

Puddings and Pastries vs. Dessert at the Biltmore (source)

While some dishes are perennial favorites, others have shifted with tastes, trends, and availability. For example, celery plays a surprising star role in menus of the past century and a half. 

Primary sources like this collection provide an invaluable connection to the past. We invite you to continue exploring NYPL’s menu collection or to visit some of the other wonderful archival collections listed on Touro Library’s History LibGuide.

1. From http://menus.nypl.org/about

Contributed by Chelsea DeGlopper, Former Instructional Design Librarian, Midtown

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