by Henry Voigt
Menus first began to appear in the late 1830s with the early arrival of hotels and restaurants and the growing popularity of service à la russe, where dishes were served in courses rather than put out on the table all at once. They were developed to fill the need of letting diners know what to expect whether ordering a la carte or simply looking over the set menu for a banquet.
Menus provide historical and cultural information about the manners, mores, and food habits of a given time and place. They originate from a wide variety of venues, ranging from restaurants and hotels to various private organizations, ships, trains, and military units. Some are beautifully crafted by leading stationers to celebrate a special event. Others merely illustrate the routines of everyday life. In either case, menus are designed to be pleasing.
As with other forms of ephemera, menus are one of the minor documents that we commonly use that are meant to be useful for only a short period of time. Even though they are occasionally saved for some personal reason, perhaps as a souvenir from a special event, they are frequently discarded by subsequent generations for whom they have no value or special meaning. As a result, old menus tend to be scarce. One aspect of their appeal lies within the notion of their improbable survival.