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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Prosperity in the Gilded Age, 1884-1889

Rapid growth and economic progress marked the era popularly known as “The Gilded Age.” Wealth and widespread prosperity were evident everywhere as hordes of “drummers” travelled throughout the country, bringing the bounty of industry to the hinterlands. The wealthiest members of society engaged in public displays of conspicuous consumption, hosting lavish dinners that followed a strict protocol. The prescribed sequence began with oysters or clams, depending on the season, followed by a soup, a fish course, a few small dishes called hors d’oeuvres, and a joint of roast meat that was presented to the guests before it was carved and plated at a sideboard. Then came a series of entrées from the heaviest to the lightest, each served with a vegetable or two. An iced punch or sherbet marked the end of the first service. The second service opened with a roast game dish, followed by a cold dish artfully constructed with costly ingredients like foie gras and truffles. It was often regarded the pièce de résistance of the event. By custom, only a few simple desserts were served at grand banquets where there were no women present.

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Louis Sherry.

Private Event. New York City: January 27, 1884.

This fine, gilt-edge menu card comes from an unidentified social event catered by Louis Sherry (1855–1926) a few months after he opened his confectionery and catering business at 662 Sixth Avenue in 1883. Sherry served the highest levels of New York society; this menu was saved by William Russell Grace (1832–1904), Irish-American politician, two-term mayor of New York City, and founder of W. R. Grace and Co. Sherry’s aesthetic sensibility and careful attention to the rituals of formal dining brought early success, prompting Delmonico’s to become more open to working in the homes of the moneyed classes. Backed by his wealthy patrons, Sherry opened his first restaurant in a refurbished mansion on Fifth Avenue and 37th Street in 1889. Nine years later, he relocated to a Stanford White-designed building on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, across from rival Delmonico’s newest uptown location.

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Municipal Celebration. Banquet. New York City: June 24, 1885.

Delmonico’s farthest uptown location at Madison Square played a central role in the civic life of New York. Its third-floor banquet room could accommodate up to about 250 guests, who typically paid $12 to $15 for a subscription banquet during the social season. This dinner honored the French naval officers of the frigate Isère, which had just arrived with the component parts of the Statue of Liberty packed in wooden crates. The sherbet at this affair was “sorbet young America,” a standard dish in Delmonico’s repertoire that normally appeared at bon voyage dinners, where it was served in a small sugar boat with an American flag. On this occasion, the little ships were decorated with the flags of France and the United States. All evening, New Yorkers cheered every mention of France and of Liberty’s sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. The menu was made by Tiffany’s.

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Palmer House.

Table d’hôte. Supper. Chicago: March 12, 1886.

The Palmer House opened on September 26, 1871, only thirteen days before it burned to the ground in the Great Fire. The second Palmer House, which was constructed mainly in brick and iron, advertises itself as “thoroughly fire proof” on this table d’hôte menu for the evening meal. The Palmer House hosted such famous guests as actress Sarah Bernhardt; writers Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde; and Presidents James Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, and Grover Cleveland.

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Private Residence.

Four O’Clock Lunch. Flint, Michigan: October 27, 1885.

This card is one of eighteen printed and manuscript menus that provide a glimpse of everyday life in a small Midwestern town in the mid-1880s. The lunches, teas, and suppers were held by a group of fourteen women who were friends and relatives. They called themselves the “XIV.” The printed menus were most likely supplied by Francis H. Rankin, Jr., a newspaper publisher and job printer whose wife, “Carrie” Rankin, brought the cocoanut [sic] cake to this potluck gathering.

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United States Military Academy.

Christmas. West Point, New York: December 25, 1886.

The cadets at West Point formed on the north side of the academic building three times a day and marched to the Mess Hall. This special Christmas menu is similar in design to the one from the luncheon in Flint, Michigan in 1885. Both menus were printed with typefaces and ornaments created by the influential German-born cutter Herman Ihlenburg (1843–1905) at the MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan foundry in Philadelphia.

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Union Club.

Special Dinner. San Francisco: April 29, 1886.

The illustration of two baseball players may refer to opening day of the California League or to the new Haight Street Grounds at Golden Gate Park, established in the spring of that year. In 1888, the San Francisco Examiner published the poem “Casey at the Bat.”

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Preble House.

Maine Commercial Travelers’ Association. Banquet. Portland, Maine: January 1, 1887.

Traveling salesmen formed professional organizations, such as the Maine Commercial Travelers’ Association, for camaraderie and to address common business issues. By the late 1880s, there were somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 “drummers” in the United States—a number that seemed even larger because they were always on the move. The social ubiquity of the freewheeling salesmen was an unsettling development in a society with a strict moral code, as indicated by the cover illustration showing a rakish dude asking a young woman on the train whether the seat next to her is occupied.

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Kimball Hotel.

Table d’hôte. Atlanta: March 16, 1888.

Although the new Kimball House was the finest hotel in Atlanta, there is no French on this menu and the middling entrées hint at the frugality of everyday life in the South after the Civil War. One of the better dishes is roasted ribs of “New York beef,” reflecting Gotham’s position at the center of the national food distribution chain. The most distinguishing feature of this minor historical document is the handsome, full-length portrait of African-American headwaiter Thomas H. Frazier (1852–1903). The image of Frazier symbolized the ambience of the dining room at the Kimball House, which was a matter of civic pride. Snippets about Frazier occasionally appeared in the Atlanta Constitution where he was lavishly praised for handling all of the arrangements for President Grover Cleveland’s stay at the hotel in 1887. 

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Monongahela House.

Medical Society of Pennsylvania. Banquet. Pittsburgh: June 4, 1889.

The cover notice in red reads: “Postponed until June 11, 1890 on account of Johnstown Flood.” The Medical Society of Pennsylvania in Allegheny County cancelled its annual banquet in 1889 so its members could provide help for the victims of the disastrous flood that killed more than 2,200 people just four days earlier.