My Ancestor’s Menu: Researching Food History in Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches through historical newspaper archives and finds old menus—and shows how these provide social history that helps us better understand our ancestors’ times.

When was the last time you ate out? How often did you eat out as a child? While for some of us eating in a restaurant was a rare treat growing up because of where we lived or finances, eating out in today’s world is a more common occurrence. For modern families whose time is overscheduled, sitting down to a meal that mom prepared (with love) can seem like something out of the 1950s. Increasingly we are relying on restaurants to help with our cooking chores. Although it can seem like going out to eat is more of a recent phenomenon, the truth is that our ancestors, depending on circumstance, may have enjoyed a meal out once in a while.

Probably not surprisingly, restaurants originated in France in the 18th century and catered to upper class patrons. Early Americans, typically men, had the opportunity to “eat out” as they traveled and stayed in taverns and inns. One restaurant that opened in the early 19th century and still exists today is the New York institution Delmonico’s, which originally opened in 1827 as a pastry shop. Early customers of Delmonico’s were treated to a vast selection of foods; its 1838 menu was 11 pages in length and included French dishes with their English translations.

Gossip from Gotham: Delmonico's--The Most Fashionable Restaurant of the Continent, San Francisco Bulletin newspaper article, 19 January 1884

San Francisco Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 19 January 1884, page 4

One surprising aspect of researching ancestral food history in newspapers is that your assumptions may be proved wrong. A good example of this can be found in this 1898 newspaper article. It reports on Thanksgiving being served at local Cleveland (Ohio) hotels. Today, some families would never think of going to a restaurant for Thanksgiving, labeling it “untraditional”—and you might assume our ancestors felt that way, too. However, judging from this article it seems that eating Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant was something many of our ancestors did. This article states that “Hundreds of guests were entertained by the hostelries yesterday, for many Clevelanders preferred to dine down town rather than at their own homes.” The article goes on to provide names of those who dined at those hotels. What a great genealogical find to see the name of an ancestor and where they were eating on Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving at the Hotels, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 November 1898

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 November 1898, page 10

Restaurant menus found in newspapers show the types of food available to your ancestors. In this example of a 1909 Sunday dinner menu from South Dakota, 25 cents buys quite a meal!

Sunday Dinner at the Model Restaurant, Aberdeen American newspaper article 18 April 1909

Aberdeen American (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 18 April 1909, page 5

This 1903 Sunday dinner menu from Wichita, Kansas, costs 20 cents and includes dishes such as Irish Stew and Prime Beef.

Menu at the People's Restaurant, Colored Citizen newspaper article 31 October 1903

Colored Citizen (Wichita, Kansas), 31 October 1903, page 3

One great aspect of newspaper research is the reminder that fads can and do make comebacks. Case in point: calories printed on menus. Think that the printing of calories is a new idea to get all of us to make healthier food choices? Consider this article about the appearance of calories on menus—in 1918! Makes you wonder why the reporting of calories eventually fell out of favor. My guess is people want to enjoy their meal out without guilt.

Aha! A New One--Restaurants Put Calories Count on Menu, Times-Picayune newspaper article 12 May 1918

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 12 May 1918, page 9

Although today we are familiar with calories and how much is too much, the idea of watching your calories was a new one at the beginning of the 20th century. This article concludes with suggested total amounts of calories needed for different types of people, including laundresses who needed 3000 calories versus a secretary who needed just 2000.

Newspapers provide researchers with rich social history and help us better understand our ancestors’ times. Take an afternoon and peruse the food history printed in the newspaper of your ancestors’ hometown. You just might be surprised at what you find.

Eating on the Titanic: Massive Quantities of Food on the Menu

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about a lunch menu from the Titanic on the day the ship struck the fateful iceberg—April 14, 1912—and talks about the massive quantities of food carried and served on that immense ship.

Mention to anyone that you are going on a cruise and most likely one of the first topics of discussion will be about food. Cruises are synonymous with large quantities of food. Whether it’s a buffet or a more formal meal in one of the cruise ship’s restaurants, the quantity and variety of food seems limitless.

The abundance of food on a passenger ship is not a modern phenomenon; consider the Titanic, that infamous passenger ship that sank in the early morning hours of 15 April 1912.

Carpathia Will Dock with (Titanic) Survivors Tonight; Facts of Tragedy Being Withheld from World, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 18 April 1912

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 18 April 1912, page 1

The RMS Titanic rang in a new era in ship travel because even the third class passengers had access to a variety of food—though not the same foods or amounts as the first class passengers.

It amazes me to think about how much food had to be secured, purchased, and stored before a cross-Atlantic voyage on a ship as large as the Titanic. With 2,224 ship passengers and crew there had to be large quantities of everything from fresh water, to produce and meat, to alcohol. Practically every need of the passengers was anticipated down to the availability of kosher food.* The website Titanic Facts has a page entitled Food on the Titanic which provides an idea of the massive quantities of food needed to cater for such a voyage, including: 11,000 pounds of fresh fish, 40 tons of potatoes and 40,000 fresh eggs!

Obviously the type of food served to a passenger on the Titanic corresponded to how much they paid to sail. However, unlike earlier ship voyages that required steerage passengers to bring their own food, Titanic’s third class passengers were fed food similar to second class passengers with a few exceptions, such as being served high tea in place of dinner. First class Titanic passengers paid up to 25 times more for their passage and the food they were offered reflected that price difference.**

photo of the first class reception room on the Titanic

Photo: First Class Reception Room on the Titanic. Credit: National Maritime Museum, Flickr: The Commons.

Photo:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalmaritimemuseum/2843687676/ Accessed 4 April 2013.

A first class lunch menu from the fateful day the Titanic struck an iceberg, April 14, 1912, is now on display at Titanic Belfast. The Titanic menu gives us a glimpse of some of the foods that were served to the millionaires sailing on the vessel. A large selection of meat dishes could be sampled, including: corned ox tongue, bologna sausage, grilled mutton chops, roast beef, veal & ham pie, corned beef, chicken a la Maryland, and spiced beef. Seafood offerings included: potted shrimps, salmon mayonnaise, Norwegian anchovies, and soused herrings. Vegetables and cheeses were also offered for lunch. Probably one of the more unfamiliar dishes served was Cockie Leekie, a soup whose ingredients include young fowl and leeks.

You may wonder how a paper menu from the day of the iceberg collision might have survived all these years. It seems that some paper items did survive; they were ensconced in the pockets of the coats, or in the case of the above menu in the purse, of those who made it safely to a lifeboat. This particular old Titanic menu now on display at Belfast is not the only copy of that day’s menu. Several years ago, a copy of that same ship luncheon menu was appraised on the PBS show Antiques Roadshow. You can watch that Titanic menu appraisal on the PBS website.

Because of the tragedy of the Titanic, most newspaper and magazine food articles concentrate on the last meal served on the Titanic the evening of April 14, 1912 (the ship struck the iceberg 11:40 that night, sinking less than three hours later). In fact there’s even a book on the subject, entitled Last Dinner on the Titanic: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner by Rick Archbold & Dana McCauley.

* “Availability of kosher food aboard Titanic sheds light on immigration via England.” Accessed 27 March 2013.

** “Food and Menus on the RMS Titanic 1912.” From: About.com British & Irish Food. Accessed 2 April 2013.

Ephemera: A Surprisingly Fertile Genealogical Resource

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about an unusual—but a personal favorite—source of family history information: ephemera.

As I research my family history I look forward to finding unusual sources that reveal different aspects of my ancestor’s life beyond what an online index provides. One unusual source I find myself searching for is ephemera. In fact, I LOVE ephemera.

What’s ephemera you ask? Well one of the official definitions is “paper items (such as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles” (from Miriam Webster). At first glance that may seem to refer to only a few items but, according to the Ephemera Society of America, the Encyclopedia of Ephemera lists 500 categories of ephemera. Vintage ephemera can provide details of your ancestor’s life, even vital record information, or a specific place and time for them.

ephemera example: wedding anniversary invitation

Ephemera example: wedding anniversary invitation. From the author’s collection.

In genealogical terms it can include everything from your grandparents’ World War II ration books, a Christmas card your great-grandparents sent out, newspaper clippings of obituaries and marriage announcements, to the letters your 4th great-grandfather wrote from the battlefield during the Civil War. But it’s even more than that. In some cases it may be tidbits that provide social history information like a World War I recruitment poster or a menu from the first restaurant in your hometown.

ephemera example: restaurant menu

Ephemera example: restaurant menu. From the author’s collection.

Not everyone fully embraces ephemera in genealogical research. Why? These types of historical records can be difficult to find. In searching for ephemera that has your ancestor’s name on it you will need to start with home sources. When I refer to a home source, I’m not just suggesting looking for items in your home. Ask your family members about any types of items they may have inherited. In some cases family members may not realize what genealogical treasures they have. It might take several discussions where you reminisce or conduct an interview before they remember some of the items they have been holding on to.

I recently blogged about a letter I found in my childhood stamp collection that was given to me by my maternal grandmother. She had given me the letter to keep because of its interesting stamp. As I read this long-forgotten letter, I realized it contained important genealogical information from her own research on an English family line from the 1800s.

Cast your genealogical fishing line far and wide, and reach out to a distant unknown cousin who may have an heirloom or a forgotten item in their home. Utilizing social media can help get the word out about your research. Consider using a blog, website, Twitter or Facebook as just some of the ways to help other researchers find you.

ephemera example: graduation exercises brochure

Ephemera example: graduation exercises brochure. From the author’s collection.

Ephemera can also be found in collections housed at archives, libraries, societies and museums. One way to find these types of historical collections is to search either the repository’s catalog or a union catalog (one that includes multiple repositories), such as ArchiveGrid or the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). When researching collections, search on the place your ancestor was from to find materials that might have originated with an acquaintance or neighbor. Also consider groups and organizations your ancestor was a member of when searching through collections.

ephemera example: postcard

Ephemera example: postcard. From the author’s collection.

Do you have ephemera from your family or someone else’s? Consider sharing this by scanning and posting it on the Internet. Several non-genealogy blogs share ephemera they have found or collected. Check out Forgotten Bookmarks, Paper Great, and Permanent Record for ideas of how others are sharing ephemera. By sharing their genealogical finds and collections they make it possible for descendants to be reunited with their family history.