Menus, often referred to as a 'Bills-of-fare,' provide documentation of the changes in dining habits over the past two centuries. The creation of the restaurant and hotel, around 1830, helped with the emergence of the menu. Menus are believed to have gotten their start, as handwritten instructions for the kitchen staff, which may have been referenced by the host and guests before dining at the table. Another early use for menus was by guests, who were being served a meal of several courses from a sidetable, and who viewed their meal options in advance.
Menus are an excellent source for charting change over time in the fashions of eating and dining. They show the types of food prepared and served, as well as the number of courses a typical meal included. Restaurant menus are important because they provide pricing information.
Menus were printed in several styles and on a variety of materials, from paper to silk. Menu styles ranged from the very simple to the very ornate with fancy decorations and illustrations.
The American Antiquarian Society's collection of approximately 400 menus range in date from 1824-1876. It includes menus and Bills-of-fare from restaurants in New England towns and other large cities, including the Tremont House in Boston; Atlantic House in Rye, NH; Sherman House in Chicago; and the Bay State House in Worcester. There are also menus for food served at special occasion dinners, such as a dinner for Charles Dickens held in New York City in 1842.
The collection is fully cataloged online in the General Catalog.
All menus in the collection are also digitally available in Readex's American Broadsides and Ephemera, Series I under "menus." This resource is available onsite at AAS and via subscription from Readex.
-Terri Tremblay, Assistant Curator of Graphic Arts
Rickards, Maurice, The Encyclopedia of Ephemera. New York: Routledge, 2000.
What's on the Menu? resource at the New York Public Library