Ink and printing-basic ingredients for food menus

Chapters 9 of Megg’s History of Graphic Design gave me a greater perspective of the beginning of our current junk mail problem. It’s not until know that I  connected  the industrial revolution with the beginning of printed ephemera (lasting for a brief period). During Victorian times, printed material immersed into our society and rapidly  began to play an important role in daily life, changing the visual culture of the time. Items like tickets, announcements, bills of fares, bill heads , posters, postcards, Christmas cards and food menus among others became part of the visual communication of everybody, being the upper and middle class people the ones how had more access to them.

On Graphic Design History, A Critical Guide, Ducker, Johanna & Mc Varish, Emily, First ed. 2009, the authors state” Print culture was both an industrial product and an instrument through which markets and opinions were mediated. P.121.   The trend mentioned before, expanded explosively from this time to today.  Let’s just  consider fliers mailed to us, unsolicited, during these past weeks, just before the elections!

Among all these items that we might classify today as junk , waste and hopefully recycling materials , the food menus plays an interesting role influencing the eating habits of a society. I have a personal interest in food history, food writing, cooking and ultimately eating a well prepared meal. Reading this chapter, I could not resist to start dipping into the history and evolution of food menus.  Menus belong of this large category considered printed ephemera,  but they are also part of a unique memorable experience dinning out.

As many food traditions, food menus originated in France. The first restaurants did not have menus. After the French Revolution, more formal restaurants established and the “culinary fare” was written on small chalkboard known as à la carte . Gradually, they evolved into sophisticated menus with elaborated designs that were an invitation to eat. Menus were also called “bill of fare.”  On the bill of fare,  the items offered by the restaurant  were listed along with the prices, in a similar way to the menus we are familiar in today trendy restaurants.
It is not clear when the menus appeared in the United States. During the eighteenth-century, taverns and inns had a  fix fare .

The Union Oyster House, first US restaurant, opened for business in 1826 in Boston and is still in business.  I could not find a menu of this specific restaurant on the internet but I found these three menus of restaurants in Boston that give an idea of how the Union Oyster House Menu might look about one hundred fifty years ago.  It is interesting to see that the menus were changed daily (see dates printed on the “Bill of Fare.”) These two menus are both from the same year, one printed on one page and the other used at least 3 pages, from which one was variable. Some of the menus of the time where printed in color and used an elaborated set of decorations, like the one of the Winthrop House, 1852. These menus were taken by customers as souvenirs. In comparison, we can see the menu of Legal Seafood,

Legal Sea Food Restaurant, Boston
Source: Legal Seafood Website

a current Boston Restaurant.  This last menu has all the modern elements  for design and food choices, but it has a  common look-massive produced items (I would say ephemera?).

Winthrop House, Boston, Bill of Fare, 1852
Source: Menu Design in America

The Winthrop House was probably  an elegant restaurant of the time.  After searching the vast collection of menus of the New York Public Library and not feeling that their examples of contemporary menus were close to  compare the Winthrop House Menu,  I realized that an ideal comparison was here in California: Chez Panisse!

Alice Waters, founder of  the restaurant hired  Patricia Curtan, artist, designer and printmaker, to create her menus. The artist published a book in 2011 with four decades of Chez Panisse Menus.

chez Panisse menu

Bastille Day, 1994. Menu designed by Patricia Curtan. Source: The Paris Review Daily

 The menus are exquisitely hand-crafted, enticing the visual sense  with the  ritual of eating.  I get the sense some of these first menus of the ninetieth century were also designed with the same purpose of having a full experience, from the beginning to the end of a meal.

The following menus are fun to see:

Dinner honoring Abraham Lincoln

Dinner honoring Abraham Lincoln, 1861
Source: Menu Design in America

The first one is a dinner honoring Abraham Lincoln in 1861.  Notice that the menu seems  printed on fabric.  There was not  much information related to the photograph, but something that grabbed my eyes were the decorations printed on the border,  emulating a handmade embroidery.

Looking for other  Presidential dinners, without much work the George W. Bush library web site showed up with  a diverse sample of menus from Camp Davis and the White House. These two menus were State Dinners.  One honoring the President of Brazil and the other  honoring Queen Elizabeth.  The visual difference of both menus as well as the menu itself is so different!  On the references, there is a video of a visit of C-Span to the White House Calligrapher Office when they where preparing the menu for Queen Elizabeth dinner I found interesting to watch.

State dinners. Menu examples from George Bush Jr.
Source: George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum


I could not finish without a menu of a dinner offered by our current President, Barack Obama.  Although all menus are there on the web, most of the information is on blogs, typed… how sad.  I found this one having a decent resolution. I hope in 5 years we are going to enjoy a museum and a library of menus prepared with vegetables grown in the very United States of America White House!

Iftar Dinner at the White House.
The tradition of hosting an Iftar dinner at the White House began under President Clinton and has been continued by both President Bush and President Obama.

Indeed,  all these menus and million more go to  recycling bins daily and hopefully they are collected by someone.  I find all of them very interesting not only from the culinary aspects, but also because  they represent different eras of graphic design and we can compare the different styles and cultural aspects involving dinning out.   To me, menus are the pre-amble of a meal.  A well designed menu is like the visual welcoming to a restaurant. I hope we, as Graphic Designers, can contribute to set up the ambiance of a dinner if one day we need to design a food menu.

I should thank Lisa Mumbach for bring up to my attention the current “soap opera” that the Cheesecake Factory has as menu.  20 pages, long,  boring and as Lisa  well described it   …“overwhelming and definitely fits the definition of print ephemera .  

Cheesecake Factory menu (pdf)

Alejandra Chaverri

October 22, 2012


Drucker, Johanna, Mc Varish, Emily.  Graphic Design History, A Critical Guide. Pearson Prentice Hall, First ed. 2009.

Heimann, Jim, Heller, Seven, Mariani, John.  Menu Design In America.Tashen, 2011.

Meggs, P.B., Purvis, A.W. Megg’s History of Graphic Design,Wiley& Sons,  fifth ed., 2012

George W. Bush Library and Museum, Dining and Diplomacy

New York Public Library, Menu Collection

The Paris Review

Tour of the White House Calligrapher Office, 2008, C-Span Video

White House Blogs, Obama Iftar Dinner menu



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