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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Modernism and Cabarets, 1909-1919

“On or about December 1910 human nature changed,” wrote Virginia Woolf years later. “All human relations shifted,” she continued, “and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” While the arrival of Modernism cannot be precisely pinpointed, there was a distinct change in behavior and cultural production in the public forms of life at about this time. The tango and other dances came to New York via Paris in 1912, igniting a dance craze that took the city by storm. Diners were no longer willing to sit still during dinner and listen to concert music. Now all they wanted to do was dance. Restaurants in the entertainment district quickly installed dance floors and sponsored late-afternoon dances known as “tango teas.” Some of these restaurants evolved into cabarets, providing entertainment in the form of singers or professional dancers. This frenetic period was a prelude to the coming Jazz Age. In January of 1917, the Original Dixieland Jass [sic] Band made its acclaimed debut at Reisenweber’s. A month later, the group made the first commercial jazz recording.

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Harvard-Yale Football Game.

À la carte. Young’s Hotel. Boston: November 20, 1909.

The woman depicted on the cover has a vague expression, reflecting an aloof, self-assured manner that once personified a feminine ideal. The transformation in social relationships which occurred at about this time can be observed by comparing this illustration with the one on the following menu from the day of the Harvard-Yale football game in 1913.

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Harvard-Yale Football Game.

À la carte. Parker House. Boston: November 22, 1913.

The couple shown on the cover look straight at each other in a way that conveys how relationships changed at the dawn of the modern era, especially when compared to the couple shown on the menu from the day of the Harvard-Yale game in 1909.

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À la carte. New York City: ca. 1910.

Murray’s was a fantastical restaurant located on 42nd Street across from the New Amsterdam Theater. It was the creation of visionary architectural decorator Henry Milos Erkins, who employed a wide variety of ancient styles and subjects. The dining rooms featured Japanese, Babylonian, and Roman motifs, among others, arguably making it the first theme restaurant. The ice cream desserts on this late supper menu have intriguing names like “Fashions of the Year 2000” and “Salome,” perhaps in reference to “A Vision of Salome” performed by interpretive dancer Maud Allan before sold-out audiences at Carnegie Hall in January of 1910. In February of that year, the Café Martin on Madison Square offered an ice cream dessert dubbed “Coupe Maud Allan.”

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The Gem.

À la carte. New Orleans: 1913.

The Gem operated in an old mansion on Royal Street from 1847 to 1919, variously as a coffee house, saloon, oyster house, café, and restaurant. This menu features chops and seafood in the American, French, and Creole styles. One item is sheepshead, a local fish that Mark Twain included on his list of iconic American foods in the fictionalized travelogue A Tramp Abroad (1880)

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À la carte. New York City: ca. 1917.

Rector’s pioneered a flamboyant style, serving rich, calorific dishes in gilded surroundings. Such restaurants in the new entertainment district around Times Square became known as “lobster palaces.” In the early teens, they were radically enlarged and refurbished in imaginative ways and began to offer entertainment. Earl Fuller’s Jazz Band played at Rector’s in 1916, a few months before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band made its acclaimed debut at Reisenweber’s. Not long after ushering in the Jazz Age, the newly-established cabarets closed as wartime Prohibition went into effect.

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À la carte. New York City: January 12, 1917.

The cabaret-lobster palaces were dazzling imitations of the great aristocratic homes of the past. Maxim’s was designed in the Louis XIV style, only with a dance floor. Future silent-screen idol Rudolph Valentino began his career as a bus boy at Murray’s and later landed a job at Maxim’s as a “taxi dancer,” a paid dance partner for lone women.

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À la carte. New York City: January 4, 1918.

Churchill’s was one of the largest restaurants in the theater district. It was patronized by average people out for a night on the town, according to proprietor James Churchill, a retired police captain. In an interview, Churchill said that many of his customers simply ordered eggs. This menu offers fifteen such dishes, ranging from fried eggs for 50 cents to a mushroom omelet for $1.25. Terrapin Maryland, one of the most expensive dishes, costs $2.00 and is highlighted in a large, distinctive typeface. A notice inside the menu reads: “Should New York vote Prohibition, please realize that we will not be able to serve drinks with your meals.” The warning was to no avail. By 1921, Prohibition was in effect and Churchill’s had closed.