A menu, perhaps with a delightful illustration, is the perfect souvenir of a special occasion, whether it be a grand dinner party, an unforgettable trip or a memorable meal.
Printed menus are something that we take for granted today. They can be found in restaurants, hotels, pubs, clubs and buffet cars, and at wedding receptions and formal dinner parties. They are, though, of relatively recent origin. In French, the phrase menu detail means 'minute detail', which was a fair description of the enormously long list of dishes once served at formal banquets.
The first printed menus appeared in France at the beginning of the 19th century. They seem to have been occasioned by the Peace of Amiens (1802), which ended a decade of war against Britain. The joyful little woodcut vignettes that decorated these early menus, depicting still lifes of fruit or game or typical French scenes, doubtless appealed to the British tourists who at once flocked to Paris. Unfortunately, the peace was short-lived, and later menus were more likely to be illustrated with scenes from the glorious military career of Napoleon Bonaparte.
By 1815, after the Battle of Waterloo, the printed menu had become a social institution one that the victorious British and their allies eagerly took back with them to their own countries after Napoleon's downfall.
HIGHLY DECORATED MENUS
The Victorians welcomed this new invention and turned it with zeal into a typographically flamboyant, fancifully decorated, embossed and deckle-edged object that no one would willingly discard. It served as a thumbnail scenic guide for the tourist, a memento of an anniversary or exhibition, or a banquet souvenir for clubmen, carousers and loyal celebrants of royal occasions.
With the introduction of colour lithography after 1870, the menu became still more eye catching, and even in the early 20th century, hotels. restaurants and clubs vied with one another in displays of decorative virtuosity. In this respect, however, the menus of London's Savage Club, embroidered on satin or trimmed with lace, have rarely been equalled.
In hotel dining rooms the vogue for lavishly presented menus continued well into the 1930s, and indeed it has never really disappeared. By contrast, country-house and banquet menus reverted to plainness, perhaps in reaction against the 'new rich' ostentation of the luxury hotels. Fast-food restaurant menus are once again lively and colourful.
A menu from a company's annual Christmas dinner is just the sort of thing that you may find in the family archives.
MENU COLLECTOR'S NOTES
A collection of old menus can give you fascinating insights into a bygone time and perhaps into the lives of people who moved in a different sphere. Many describe the types of food eaten at grand dinner parties and are illustrated with designs typical of the era.
The menu could be lengthy, as Viscountess Hambleden, writing between the wars, noted:
'For a big dinner party, a really posh dinner party, you would have either thick or clear soup, followed by fish, followed by the entree
- chicken or quails. Then you had saddle of lamb or beef; you had a pudding; you had a savoury; and then you had fruit.'
A MEAL TO REMEMBER
In similar vein, Sir Osbert Sitwell, writing in 1931, set down his ideal dinner party menu. Before dinner the guests were to drink 'a cocktail, flavoured with something vague and unusual ... for a well-iced cocktail breaks any other kind of ice.' Dinner itself should begin with caviar, accompanied by a small glass of vodka, and go on to turtle soup and sherry. Then there should follow either grilled sole or Homard Thermidor (lobster in a rich wine and Parmesan sauce), accompanied by Pouilly, and grouse (in season) or 'a very simple chicken, grilled or roasted', along with Cheval Blanc (claret). After finishing off with iced pudding and champagne, 'there shall be old brandy for the men, and cointreau and green chartreuse for the women.'
Menus can be framed and hung on the wall - they make excellent conversation pieces. Try using a double-sided frame (one with two sheets of glass) if you want to display both the front and the inside of a menu. Cigarette card dealers sell these frames, and picture framers may have them in stock and should be able to make them up if not.
Alternatively, the best way to display your collection is in an album. Menus should not be stuck in but mounted with photographic corners or a similar system that will not damage them. Photo albums are often ideal.
There are relatively few good sources of menus for the aspiring collector. Antiques shops sometimes have the odd one, and large antiques markets will probably have a dealer in paper ephemera who, among other things, should have a number of menus.
Some of the most collectable menus are those from early air travel and steamship cruises, and from famous restaurants such as the Savoy, which often commissioned popular artists of the day to illustrate them. It is always worth putting the word out among friends and family, for almost every household has at least one or two old menus tucked away. They are all intriguing in their own way and you might just be lucky enough to find one from an historic event such as a state banquet or the maiden voyage of an ocean liner.