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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Civil War and Its Aftermath, 1862–1869

“Hunger was the dominant note of life in the Confederacy, civil as well as military,” recalled Basil Gildersleeve, a classics professor and former Confederate officer. Chronic food shortages in the South were caused by the blockade, destruction of crops, and loss of farm laborers. Two scarce hotel menus reflect this wartime scarcity, especially when compared to what was available at similar establishments in the Union. With the end of the war in sight, President Abraham Lincoln celebrated “a new beginning” at his second inaugural ball in March 1865, only weeks before the frenzied fall of Richmond, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and his assassination. The conflict continued in the political arena during the congressional elections of 1866, when President Andrew Johnson embarked on an unprecedented speaking tour in hopes of gaining public support. Although Johnson was lavishly fêted, he failed to advance his Reconstruction policies. As the turbulent decade drew to a close, Californians looked forward to a prosperous future made possible by a treaty with China that promised immigrant labor to complete the transcontinental railroad.

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Russ House.

Table d’hôte. San Francisco: February 10, 1863.

Opening in 1862, the Russ House filled the entire block of Montgomery Street between Bush and Pine Streets. A notch below the luxurious Lick House and Occidental Hotel, the Russ House catered to farmers, merchants, and miners who paid $2.00 to $2.50 a night for room and board. The daily menu, which is printed askew on the form, reflects the plentiful fare at hotels in the Union. The wine list and transportation schedule for steamboats and stages are shown on the inside.

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Lanier House.

Table d’hôte. Macon, Georgia: February 26, 1862.

Sterling Lanier, grandfather of poet Sidney Lanier, opened Lanier House in 1850. This menu, which dates to the first year of the war, includes ham hocks and greens, fried oysters, and peach pie. The wine list and a railroad schedule are shown on the verso. Confederate President Jefferson Davis stayed here in November 1864, three months after the fall of Atlanta, and was briefly held in custody at Lanier House in May 1865 after being captured by Union forces.

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American Hotel.

Table d’hôte. Richmond, Virginia: March 13, 1864.

This menu reflects the food shortages that arose in the Confederacy. The bill of fare does not offer tea or coffee, which were no longer easily obtainable, nor are there any pastries. Sugar had become particularly scarce by this point in the war. The lack of shipments from outside the region also caused the cuisine to be markedly local in character. The ham-and-greens dish was made with poke sallet weed, a poisonous wild plant popular in Appalachia and the South. The leaves must be boiled in water three times to make them safe to eat, even in the early spring when its toxins are at the lowest levels. The vegetable called “cornfield peas” refers to the agricultural practice of planting peas between rows of corn to enrich the soil. They could have been any one of the numerous varieties then grown in Virginia, such as the Clay pea, Shinney pea, Tory pea, and Three Crop pea. The American Hotel was destroyed by fire on April 3, 1865, during the fall of Richmond.

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Patent Office.

Presidential Inauguration Ball. Washington, D.C.: March 6, 1865.

The menus at President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball were printed on stiff board, seemingly so they could be placed upright on the buffet table. Before the dining room was opened for the midnight supper, the presidential party dined privately at the end of the long table where they may have been handed the display menus to help guide their choices. One of the three extant copies was reportedly saved by Lincoln.

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Massasoit House.

Table d’hôte. Springfield, Massachusetts: April 16, 1865.

This dinner on Easter Sunday features prairie chickens, apple fritters, and squash pies. The spring season is reflected in offerings of Connecticut River shad and cowslips, a flowering herb also used as a complexion aid and a calmative. The most intriguing aspect of the menu is its simple black border. In the bed of the printing press, straight rules were inserted on the four sides of the movable type to create what appears to be a funereal border, most likely in mourning for Abraham Lincoln, who had died the previous day.

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Neil House.

President Andrew Johnson. Banquet. Columbus, Ohio: September 12, 1866.

In an attempt to bolster his mild Reconstruction policies and support his preferred candidates in the North, President Andrew Johnson took his cabinet on an eighteen-day speaking campaign during the congressional elections of 1866. Dubbed the “Swing around the Circle,” the political trip turned into a fiasco by the time the President reached Columbus, two days before he returned to the White House with less support than when he embarked on the tour.

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Lick House.

Chinese Diplomatic Mission. Banquet. San Francisco: April 28, 1868.

Lick House was built by James Lick, who made an enormous fortune by being among the first to buy real estate in the tiny village of San Francisco. Opening in 1861, the luxury hotel boasted a large dining room modeled on a room in the Palace of Versailles. At this banquet, Californians enthusiastically fêted U.S. Ambassador Anson Burlingame and a delegation of Chinese diplomats who were on their way to Washington, D.C. to sign a treaty that would ease immigration restrictions, allowing the transcontinental railroad to be completed more quickly. Attitudes changed considerably by 1882 when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting all Chinese laborers from entering the country.