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Grolier Club Exhibitions

King Cotton and the Telegraph, 1853-1862

Hotel cuisine offered few surprises. Following the custom of the era, the typical table d’hôte dinner menu offered a large and unvarying selection of boiled, roast, and cold meat dishes, while the soup, fish course, entrées, vegetables, and desserts were changed daily. Soups such as mock turtle, tomato rice, and vermicelli were common. The most ubiquitous entrée was macaroni and cheese, which appeared in various guises. Other representative dishes included pork and beans, oyster patties, larded sweetbreads, and mutton with caper sauce. It was not unusual to find small game birds on toast or a calf’s head with brain sauce among the principal courses. The last entrée on the list was often a lighter, sweet dish like rice cakes or apple fritters served with a rum glacé. The meal service for breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper also followed a predictable pattern. Americans were notorious for eating quickly, spending as little as ten minutes at the dinner table. Still, there were oases of refinement, such as La Pierre House in Philadelphia; the Battle House in Mobile; and Taylor’s Saloon, the foremost women’s restaurant in New York City. On the other end of the social spectrum, a simple menu from the North American Phalanx reveals everyday fare at a rural Utopian community.

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La Pierre House.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Banquet. Philadelphia: November 8, 1854.

This extensive menu, printed by lithographer Eugene Ketterlinus for the 172nd anniversary celebration of the landing of William Penn, represented a lofty achievement in the American printing and culinary arts. Among the dozen game dishes are two of the country’s greatest delicacies—canvasback duck and diamondback terrapin, a species of turtle native to the brackish coastal tidal marshes of the eastern and southern United States. In the Philadelphia style, the stewed terrapin was garnished with terrapin eggs. The tables at this banquet were adorned with nine decorative confectionery sculptures, featuring names like “Cleopatra’s Palace,” “Russian Cathedral,” and “Genius of America, Protecting the World.”

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Tremont House.

Stephen Douglas. Honoree Banquet. Chicago: November 9, 1854.

Senator Stephen Douglas was fêted by friends and political allies at this post-election dinner at the third Tremont House, which was regarded as the finest hotel in Chicago. Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln announced their respective candidacies for the U.S. Senate from its balcony in 1858. Douglas died suddenly at this hotel in June 1861, seven months after his defeat in the presidential election.

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North American Phalanx.

À la carte. Red Bank, New Jersey: September 22, 1855.

The North American Phalanx was a Utopian community founded on the theories of French philosopher Charles Fourier in 1844. Over the course of its twelve-year history, there were between 120 and 150 members in this non-sectarian association in which women were accorded the same rights and wages as men. The community maintained a large kitchen and dining room, a gristmill, forges, carpentry shops, gardens, and a pond for bathing and ice harvesting. Its hominy, produce, and breakfast cereals were shipped by steamboat to markets in New York City. These high-quality products were marked “NAP,” one of the first brands in the country. The socialist commune abandoned the practice of sharing food in common in 1855, the year before it closed. Menus were printed each day and put out before the meal. Although the dishes were not priced, the meal service was à la carte. Metal chits were placed on the table with each dish and later collected by the server, who calculated the cost and recorded the amount in each member’s account. The prices were low, in keeping with the meager wages. A serving of meat or a slice of pie cost two cents. Coffee was half a cent per cup.

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Battle House.

Queen Victoria’s Birthday. Banquet. Mobile, Alabama: May 24, 1855.

Battle House was the quintessential luxury hotel in the antebellum South. This dinner celebrating Queen Victoria’s birthday was held by British expatriates possibly connected to the plantation-era cotton trade. The bill of fare includes crab gumbo, green turtle soup, and four local fish—broiled pompano, baked sheephead, fried perch, and boiled redfish.

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Riverboat Princess.

Mississippi River: April 19, 1857.

The riverboats Princess and Natchez were said to be the fastest paddle steamers on the Mississippi. During the late antebellum period, the sister riverboats made the round-trip journey to Vicksburg each week, departing New Orleans at 5:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays, respectively. Paddling 300 miles upstream, they stopped at a dozen rural backwaters carrying hundreds of passengers and transporting 400-pound bales of cotton destined for the textile mills of New England and Europe. Mississippi riverboats that operated in the Deep South, such as the Princess and Natchez, were mostly manned by African Americans, many of whom were slaves leased from riverside plantations. Waiters and barbers ranked high in the hierarchy of riverboat workers. On the lower decks, there were more slaves than free blacks laboring as firemen and roustabouts. About two percent of the riverboat labor force was enslaved women who worked as chambermaids.