Learning for Me'n'U | Newberry

Learning for Me'n'U

There are those who do not understand that many of the things we sell at the Book Fair are, um, old. They understand about used books, but only to about five years ago. “Collectibles are different,” they say, “But why would anybody buy THIS?” (Some people say it about Collectibles, too, but let’s face it, these people are merely celebrity hunters who came to gawk at Uncle Blogsy, and know nothing of books.)

“That’s eighty years old! What could it say that is of any interest?” I try to point out that Shakespeare is centuries old, and still seems to speak to people, but by that time, their attention has started to wander.

And the more ephemeral a thing is, the more they complain that no one would ever want it. “Why would someone ever look at an old phone book?” they demand, oblivious to the fact that the Newberry has an amazing collection of old phone books, for the use of genealogists. “What use on earth is there in an old Cubs schedule? All those games can be looked up online!”

Well, there are people who understand and people who don’t. I had a call once from a woman who promised me her husband’s collection, if she could slip it out while he wasn’t looking. He had some four hundred old restaurant menus.

“What a thing to have around the house!” someone said to me when I mentioned this. “You wouldn’t…actually TAKE trash like that, would you?”

I suspect they knew the answer to that, and I suspect you do as well. Of course, I would have taken them, had I ever heard from her again. I assume that she either came to grips with her husband’s collection, or her husband decided that if he had to choose between the menus and her…I hope she got money as alimony, and no menus.

Let me try to explain what some of us get out of reading an old menu. Here’s one which came in recently, alas, not from a Chicago establishment. It comes to us from a hotel in San Francisco, probably at some point in the 1950s. Dating an old menu is not easy, but you can take a shot at it by looking at the prices. The twelve-ounce steak will set you back five dollars and ninety cents. This was not printed yesterday.

You can also place it by looking over the beverage menu, which offers coffee or Postum (a bygone caffeine-free coffee substitute.) You can order milk or buttermilk (no longer seen on most menus in the northern half of the country), or Ovaltine. There is not one carbonated soft drink to be had: that sort of thing belonged in the diner or the soda shoppe. Grown-ups didn’t drink such stuff.

But they certainly ate breakfast! Buckwheat cakes, corn cakes, or wheat cakes are available (the word pancake hadn’t made it out to the West Coast yet), along with waffles, with syrup or honey. French toast can be had with syrup or jelly: French toast and honey didn’t mix, I suppose. A side order of ham was two slices, a full side of bacon six. Fresh fruit could be substituted (served with cream) and you were certainly going to have eggs, and a side of potatoes, or even fried sole, with tartar sauce.

You could count calories at lunch instead. There were plenty of salad options (all of them with some sort of meat: even the bowl of mixed greens had julienne turkey.) Sandwiches, even hamburgers, seem to have been served with chips, but you COULD get French fries (but you had to order the ham and eggs, the only dish that included the fries.)

This is a smidgeon of what you can learn about the eating habits of tourists once upon a time (I haven’t even MENTIONED the French-fried crab legs). Yes, the place isn’t there any more, and if it were, these prices would be WAY out of date. But learning, not immediate utility, is the lesson of bygone ephemera.

Maybe next week, we’ll discuss what you can’t order these days from these two old mail order catalogs. (Marshall Field’s had some good stuff on offer in 1894. No French-fried crab legs, though.)

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