Vintage holiday menus offer a valuable glimpse at lifestyles through America’s gilded age (1870s to 1900). They first appeared in 1837 when Delmonico’s became America’s first elegant restaurant. Prior to that, Thanksgiving and Christmas meals were largely home-cooked affairs. With decades of competitors that followed Delmonico’s, eating out on holidays lost its stigma and people flocked to order from these vintage holiday menus.
Advances in printing techniques in the 19th century enabled restaurateurs to print specialty menus. Many featured colored illustrations, logos and elaborate type styles. They could be embossed or textured and Delmonico’s printed their menus in French and English. According to Peggy Baker, the former director and librarian of the Pilgrim Hall Museum, some were elaborate affairs fringed with tassels or ribbons.
Baker held an exhibit of menus at the Pilgrim Hall Museum in 1998. Titled “Thanksgiving a la Carte,” it featured more than 40 menus from the 19th and 20th centuries. Her passion for vintage holiday menus started when she found one dated Thanksgiving November 29, 1894 for Hotel Vendome in Boston.
The four-course dinner was considerably more exotic than the typical home-cooked offering, past or present. Even so, Roast Turkey with Cranberry Sauce was included in the line-up of entrees.
A quick glance into these vintage holiday menus will give you a taste of the good life from days long gone.
#1- Dining out on Thanksgiving had a tough road to acceptance.
Abraham Lincoln nationalized the holiday in 1863, largely in part to Sarah Hale’s 17-year campaign. But it took some areas of the country decades to embrace the day. According to historian Melanie Kirkpatrick in her book Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience, many still considered it a “Yankee” holiday. Plus the date changed several more times until it landed squarely on the fourth Thursday of November.
#2-Turkey was not always obligatory.
The appearance of the turkey on Thanksgiving tables was not a given before the 1800s. Eventually it became a more common choice. By the time Lincoln’s proclamation made the day official, turkey was the guest of honor in most homes. These now Vintage holiday menus offered an abundance of exotic dishes. But almost all offered at least one turkey course and some version of other traditional favorites.
#3-Delmonico’s changed dining in America.
Yes, people ate at taverns and other informal eateries from the beginning of time. But America did not have a formal restaurant until the Delmonico brothers opened their doors as a “restaurant français” This was the New York’s introduction to the concept and the name “restaurant,” which originated in post-revolutionary France.
Their first establishment, a high-end coffee and pastry house that opened in 1827 was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1835 LINK. They rebuilt as a dining establishment that offered guests individual tables with white cloths and a menu. In 1837 they opened the lavish eatery that became the place to be seen among those who were not on a budget.
According to their site:
“Delmonico’s offered an unheard of luxury – the availability of private dining rooms (located on the third floor) where discriminate entertaining was the order of the day.”
They had the largest wine cellar in the city with 1,000 bottles of the world’s finest wines.
“It was during these early years that Chef Alessandro Fellippini began to develop the restaurant’s culinary identity with the house special, Delmonico Steak.”
Not only were the brothers first to open a proper restaurant, they were first to offer menu items a la carte and to print their menus in both French and English. They started the first proper business lunches for Manhattan businessmen. Yes, they served only men because women were still not welcome mid-day and never without a male companion. But Delmonico’s also became the first restaurant to allow women to dine without men in 1868.
#4 Delmonico’s triggered a wave of elite institutions.
In his book, The Restaurant: A 2,000-Year History of Dining, William Sitwell writes:
“Intended or not, restaurants have been instruments and symbols of transformation. They can signpost both the decline and success of a nation…”
Delmonico’s set the social standards of refinement for Manhattan’s upper class. Their success encouraged a wave of competitors. Among them were the Astor, Rector’s, the grand Waldorf-Astoria, Café Martin and Sherry’s. It was America’s gilded age and many were housed in extravagant hotels. Most had European-trained chefs. They catered to opulent private parties and elaborate events.
The best of them became the places to see and be seen. Institutions like Delmonico’s attracted the movers and shakers of the time. Even Nikola Tesla dined there every day. His was in good company with Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, performer Jenny Lind and an endless list of presidents (including Abraham Lincoln), politicians, celebrities, authors, businessmen and scientists. Boss Tweed and his cronies were regulars as were Tennessee Claflin and Victoria Woodhull the notorious sisters who became first women to run a Wall Street brokerage attempted to dine without a male escort but were refused Woodhull ran for president in 1863.
“And just as restaurants can be symbolic of a country, so, too, can they be a status symbol for the diner. How complex the idea of dining out becomes when the reason someone picks a restaurant is because of the reflected glory they believe they revel in by simply being there.”
Wishing all joy and good health through the holidays.
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