History of menus date to the 18th century, upon typography innovations of the day. Prior to that, a chalkboard might have appeared outside of dining rooms to herald its bill of fare. Or service staff would announce available dishes to patrons.
The New York Public Library owns one of the largest historical collections of menus in the world, held in the Rare Books Division. Begun by a donation from Miss Frank E. Buttolph and continued until her death in 1924, the collection has been augmented by other gifts over the years. The Buttolph Collection is strongest for the period between 1890 and 1910.
The University of Nevada at Las Vegas features an extensive digital library of collectible menus. Here are excerpts from that website:
Menus provide a wealth of information beyond their aesthetic value and are a valued index of cultural and social history. Providing information on the most popular cuisine of a time period and region and are evidence of changing culinary tastes. Also indicating how particular food items have been used regionally, while noted restaurants can showcase their well-known chefs.
Design-wise they are examples of the graphic design elements illustrative of a particular historical time period. For students of menu design they can serve as examples of graphic design, placement and layout.
The physical menu was often referred to as the carte (the French word for map), and in other places it was referred to as the “bill of fare” according to contemporary literature and restaurant reviews.
The concept of having a number of dishes to choose from–was not an option–as patrons sat at one large table at an appointed hour and the eating was family style (the earliest definition of table d’hôte) and would consist of whatever the owner cared to prepare.
The majority of menus selected for this digital project came from the Bohn-Bettoni Collection, which consistof approximately 2000 restaurant menus dating from 1870-1930.
The UNLV Libraries purchased the Bohn-Bettoni Collection in 1970.
The department’s staff would go on to collect hundreds of additional menus, many of them winners of the National Restaurant Association’s annual menu design competition.
For Thanksgiving menus, images of pilgrims, wild birds, and pastoral scenes are dominant, but more memorable, perhaps, are the menus featuring humorous depictions of turkeys trying to fend off their imminent demise.
Although the Thanksgiving cuisine featured in these late 19th- and early 20th-century American menus was indeed heavy on the game animals (including squirrel, opossum, antelope, and bear in some cases), turkey with cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes was still a common offering. Interestingly, the present-day staple of pumpkin pie did not appear on all Thanksgiving menus, which instead favored mince pie.
Thanksgiving Day menu, 1899 at Hotel Hascall (Goshen, Indiana)
If it’s on the menu…the Menu Shoppe has it covered.
America’s leading source for restaurant menu covers