Collection on Formal Dining Events, 1865-1965

Extent: 3 boxes
The collection on formal dining events contains materials pertaining to organized, invitation-only, private dinners held in New York City between 1865 and 1965.

Historical Note
The rise in popularity of dining events in the mid-nineteenth century was precipitated by various factors. One was the competitive social environment brought upon by the end of the Civil War, and best described by Burrows and Wallace’s Gotham (1999):

“Since the Revolution, Manhattan’s elite had been torn between a lifestyle that befit their sober republican principles and one that displayed their increasing wealth and confidence. In the affluent fifties they had tilted toward public preening; now, in the gilded sixties and seventies, they lurched toward outright ostentation. The adoption of ducal levels of display was driven by tremendous self-assurance – engendered by their victory in war, mastery of the peacetime economy, and unprecedented accumulation of wealth.” (p. 951)

The desire to illustrate wealth was helped along by the opening of several fine dining establishments, which hosted many of the events represented in this collection. Delmonico’s opened in 1837 and popularized à la carte dining and French cuisine. The restaurant expanded in the 1850s and began hosting association dinners and lavish private banquets. Delmonico’s competitor, Sherry’s, was opened in 1890 and quickly became notorious for hosting extravagant events, including one men’s dinner that was allegedly raided by the police because of the presence of a nude female dancer. Another popular dinner location was the Hotel Astor, opened in 1904 in Times Square. The hotel was home to elaborate ballrooms, one in the Rococo style of Louis XV, and exotic restaurants, including the American Indian Grill Room, which was decorated with museum-like artifacts and photographs.

Not only were dinners an opportunity for hosts to demonstrate wealth, but they also allowed the hosts and guests to practice and perform their manners. Etiquette books increased in popularity during the 19th century, and served as a form of education for those not born into high society. Guides such as Good morals and gentle manners: For schools and families, published circa 1873 and written by Alexander Murdoch Gow, instructed proper use of napkins and each utensil found at a place setting. It was not unusual for place settings at formal dinners to include as many as 24 pieces of silverware and 8 pieces of stemware, and guests were expected to be knowledgeable of proper protocol for these utensils in order to prevent themselves from making an embarrassing faux pas.

Scope and Content
The collection on formal dining events contains materials pertaining to organized, invitation-only, private dinners held in New York City between 1865 and 1965. The majority of these events were thrown in honor of a special guest, some of them nationally or locally famous, like Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Evans Hughes, and some not. Individuals, groups, or committees formed for the explicit purpose of organizing or hosting the dinners. Long standing clubs and societies were also know for hosting formal dinners, and those materials are held in The Collection on Clubs, Societies, and Associations. Although the dinners represented in the collection were invitation-only events, they were often held within in the public eye. A November 1925 banquet tendered to the Honorable Charles Evans Hughes in recognition of his international peace efforts was held at the Hotel Astor, attended by 1,000 guests, and featured on the front page of the next day’s New York Times. A few of the dinners were seemingly held to entertain the host’s friends, such as the 1909 eight course “Man’s Dinner” given by James B. Regan, proprietor of the Knickerbocker Hotel. The collection also contains objects from several dinners given by “the citizens of New York City”, including a 1904 banquet at Sherry’s in honor of Mayor George B. McClellan – only 550 citizens were in attendance.

The main formats of material in the collection are invitations, menus and programs. Many of the menus and programs feature portraits of the honored guests, and are beautifully engraved by companies like Malcolm & Hayes and Tiffany & Co.

Click here to view the fill finding aid for the Collection on Formal Dining Events.

Related Material
Museum of the City of New York Collection on Clubs, Societies and Associations
Museum of the City of New York’s Collection on Social Events
Museum of the City of New York’s Collection on Civic Events
Museum of the City of New York’s Collection on Dining and Hospitality

The Museum is grateful for the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities; this collection was reprocessed as part of the NEH project Illuminating New York City History through Material Culture: A Proposal to Process, Catalog, Digitize, and Rehouse the Ephemera Collections of the Museum of the City of New York. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this finding aid do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.