The Buttolph Collection of Menus at the New York Public Library shows what people were eating in restaurants decades ago. It contains tens of thousands of menus, with the bulk from the early 20th century, when the collection’s creator, Miss Frank E. Buttolph, was actively collecting menus. In this post, I’ll highlight three seasonal menus and a creative menu for bankers.
A Stocking Menu from Detroit
The Christmas Spirit moved the Griswold House’s menu designer in 1900, leading to a stocking-shaped menu. Based on my reading of menus from around 1900, this one is fairly typical. It is loaded with French cuisine, and also has some game (roast canvasback duck and stuffed roast opossum). And celery, of course (restaurant menus of that era often had celery in the salad or appetizer section).
If you love Thanksgiving, you should learn the name Sarah Josepha Hale.
Starting in 1846 and continuing until her retirement in 1877, Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) used her position as editress1 of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine — one of the most popular and influential magazines of the time — to campaign for a national Thanksgiving holiday in November. For many years, she wrote two editorials each year in the magazine explaining the benefits of a national Thanksgiving holiday and encouraging her readers to pressure public officials to establish the holiday. She also wrote thousands of personal letters (by hand!) to elected officials, to the influencers of the day (other magazine editors, prominent preachers, etc.), and to her wide network of friends and family.
When Hale started her campaign, Thanksgiving wasn’t a new concept in America. Towns, villages and states held harvest festivals that included a late-morning trip to church for a special service, followed by a feast2. But there was no national Thanksgiving Day.
A escaped convict is on the run in San Francisco, one step ahead of the police, trying to prove he didn’t commit the crime that sent him to prison. The only person he trusts is a wealthy woman who lives in a lavish apartment on Telegraph Hill.
That’s a basic mostly spoiler-free summary of the plot of Dark Passage, one of the great “San Francisco films.” Released in 1947, Dark Passage is notable for its use of location, notably the apartment shown above, and for its unusual use of the film’s biggest star — Humphrey Bogart — for the first third of the film. And like other San Francisco films, it has quite a bit of geographic weirdness. For example, when Sam the cab driver (Tom D’Andrea) tells Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) a story about a fare who got in the cab carrying a bowl with goldfish in it.
We are at the edge of pumpkin and pumpkin spice season, with the peak still ahead of us, so I thought it would be fun to run three pumpkin terms through the Ngrams Viewer from Google Books: pumpkin pie, pumpkin pie spice, and pumpkin spice. For those not familiar with the tool, The Ngrams Viewer tool searches the Google Books library of digitized printed materials, which is mostly books but also includes periodicals, for the terms you request (with numerous variations allowed, as explained in the documentation).
Pumpkin Pie, Pie Spice, and Spice
Here is the Ngram chart for the three terms (link) from 1800 to 2019:
Not surprisingly, pumpkin pie spice and pumpkin spice do not appear until the mid-to-late 20th century. Pumpkin pie spice was probably created by one of the big spice houses (like McCormick), while pumpkin spice is a much more recent creation of the food and drink industry.
I’m a big fan of old movies — film noir, musicals, the epics of the 1950s and 60s. I recently watched The Band Wagon, a 1953 musical directed by Vincente Minnelli1, one of the last huge and lavish MGM musicals. In a scene that follows the out of town premiere of the “show within a show” that stars Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) and Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse), the cast and crew are having a party to reduce their sorrow after the out-of-town premiere did not go well. Soon after Hunter arrives, one of the cast members offers him “some pizza pie.”2
That “Want some pizza pie?” line made me wonder: in which Hollywood movie was pizza first mentioned? Could The Band Wagon be the first one?
Babbitt’s New York City soap and saleratus (baking soda) factory was near the southern tip of Manhattan, occupying about 20,000 sq. ft. (1,848 sq. m) of land on 1/2 of the block bordered by West St, Rector St, Washington St, and Morris St (41-44 & 46-51 West St, and 64-82A Washington St). The first map below shows that it was just a few blocks from Battery Park (“The Bronx is up, and the Battery’s down”, as the “New York, New York” song in “On The Town” goes). The second and third maps show other views of the area.
Its riverfront location was probably not by accident, as the facility produced more than 100,000 pounds (~45,000 kg) of soap, and a large amount of baking soda each day. This required a lot of raw materials from outside of New York City, and therefore, having the docks close by was an advantage.
At the end of my post on the Sanitary Fair in Brooklyn to raise funds for Union Army soldiers, I highlighted an advertisement from the B.T. Babbitt company, and noted that one of their all-text ad felt as if it could have been written today. It offered free shipping for certain orders and promised a donation to charity with every purchase. Those features, plus the wording made me think that this B.T. Babbitt company was a small operation, maybe even a huckster. I was wrong.
It didn’t take long to find out that that Benjamin T. Babbitt was a big deal: he held numerous patents, his company was an innovator in advertising, the company had multiple factories and multiple product lines, including a 300,000 sq. ft. (27,870 sq. m) factory in Lower Manhattan.
The B.T. Babbitt company was a pioneer in advertising and marketing, perhaps the first to use retail premiums to sell products in America, as they gave away free lithographic prints with purchase of baking soda 1. Some of the marketing items that survive are advertising cards: one side typically shows a cute child or two, sometimes a pet, and always a box of B.T. Babbitt soap; the other side has text that praises the soap and its proprietor Mr. Babbitt. For example:
“Full of hope with Babbitt’s soap…Call on B.T. Babbitt if you would know how joyous life is beyond the clouds…”
“Behold! you washing world; the soap, / That lightens labor, brightens hope, / Begrudge to worthless wares your dimes, / And order BABBITT’S BEST betimes”
During the COVID-19 pandemic and run-up to the 2020 U.S. Election, I started watching the Great British Baking Show (a.k.a. Great British Bake Off) on Netflix as a way to reduce stress. When one of the contestants mentioned a “proofing drawer” my ears perked up. Soon I understood that the proofing drawer (a.k.a. warming drawer) as a tool that provided a warm, temperature-controlled environment that would keep a batch of dough happy and growing.
My personal interest in this appliance is driven by the room temperature in my house Berkeley, California, which is usually too cool for most bread fermentation (typically 65 F/18 C)1, but I don’t have space or energy to research and install a commercial proofing drawer.
Evolution of the DIY Proofing Drawer
A few years ago, while living in another house in Berkeley, I also faced the room temperature problem. Full of creative inspiration from the Maker Movement of the time, I built a DIY proofing drawer, using a kitchen cabinet as the container and a 60 Watt incandescent light bulb as the heat source. An Arduino microcontroller with various accessories controlled the temperature in the cabinet. It worked OK, but I didn’t use it much because it was a pain to set up — empty the cabinet, dig out my Arduino stuff, set it up, etc.
Brooklyn, February 1864. A young woman steps up to the Post Office counter and asks “Anything for me, if you please?”
Is she hoping for a letter from a brother, husband, or ‘beau’ who is serving in the Grand Army of the Republic? Is he in the field, waiting for action? Or in a hospital recovering from battle wounds (perhaps from Gettysburg, which took place 7 months earlier)? Or does she have a sister or aunt working as a nurse in a military hospital?