Savoring the Bay Through Historic Menus

1901 Breakfast menu from the Hotel Chamberlin at Old Point Comfort, Virginia. Collections of the New York Public Library.

Like the rest of the online world, we at CBMM have spent our time virtually plundering the treasure trove that is the New York Public Library’s newly digitized online collections. Over 674,000 items have been scanned and uploaded, for anyone to enjoy, and the site is full of thousands of rabbit holes to descend into, delightfully. One such rabbit hole is the Buttholph collection of menus, which encompasses almost 19,000 pieces of restaurant ephemera from 1843- 2008.

Princess Anne Hotel menu from Virginia Beach in 1897. Collections of the New York Public Library.

The menus have been sourced from around the country, and the Chesapeake examples are particularly delightful. The strong representation of seasonal harvests is clear, from the planked shad and oyster fritters served up at the Princess Anne Hotel to stewed oysters and clam broth (for breakfast, no less!) on offer at old Point Comfort’s Hotel Chamberlin.

1900 Supper menu from the Chesapeake Steamship Company. Collections of the New York Public Library.

White tablecloth service and the Bay’s bounty weren’t only available on land, however- Chesapeake Bay steamboats were renowned for their elegant meals and world-class service. Diners enjoyed their sumptuous repasts in lavishly paneled dining rooms under crystal chandeliers, and tucked in real linen napkins at their collar. Liveried waiters brought courses of oyster pate, tongue, pig’s feet, pin-money pickles, and other substantial fare for the reasonable price of seventy-five cents.

1901 Baltimore Masonic Temple menu. Collections of the New York Public Library.

The menus also indicate that both citified and country folks alike savored meals built around the ample harvests sourced from the Chesapeake Bay- many of which are illegal or restricted today. Shad, for example, was a popular 19th century dish that has been a closed fishery in Maryland waters since the 1980′s due to low populations. Green turtle soup, made from sea turtles harvested at the mouth of the Chesapeake, is another example of bygone fare- the species is now endangered, largely due to harvesting for that very dish.

These fascinating examples of Chesapeake material culture are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in the New York Public Library’s digital collections- where carefully-saved documents create a paper trail that leads us right to the Chesapeake’s rich, delicious past.