It’s 1947, you’re travelling First Class aboard the Cunard White Star flagship RMS Queen Elizabeth and dinner is served. For starters, it’s oysters on the half shell, followed by clear turtle soup, turbot for the fish course and timable of ham. The roast sirloin of beef is accompanied by braised onions, fresh broccoli, globe artichokes and hollandaise sauce. Potatoes are ‘boiled, roast snow and Parisienne’.
Pudding is a choice of Seville souffl�, charlotte russe or praline parfait, or one could stick with the ices – vanilla, Neapolitan or pistachio. And to finish: fresh fruit, coffee and ‘Scotch Woodcock’. How do I know the menu? Simple, I have a copy of it.
Beautifully printed and decorated with an illustration on the cover – in this case, a view of the Scottish Highlands – and rescued by me from a car boot sale. Cost? A couple of pounds, if memory serves, and I snapped up seven others for similar money.
Of course, there are far more expensive ways of starting your own collection of menus. The entreaty in the Sunday papers reads ‘Book your place on your dream liner’. With a Christmas cruise to the Caribbean for 10 nights starting just at short of �5,000, sadly, any menus collected on the voyage would prove to be an expensive long term investment. Today, my Forties vintage menus might be worth perhaps �10-15 apiece.
But not only is a menu a charming collectable, there is no better memento of a meal to celebrate a special occasion, a memorable holiday or an important anniversary. Printed menus from such events should not be left on the table.
They first appeared in France at the beginning of the 19th century, possibly to mark the Peace of Amiens in 1802, which ended a decade of war against Britain.
Such examples were decorated delightfully with woodcut images of fruit and game and peaceful scenes of the French countryside and they were collected avidly by tourists.
However, Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign was not far behind and peace did not last. Menus reflected the fact. During Boney’s era they were illustrated with scenes from his glorious military career.
By 1815, after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, the printed menu had become a social institution that the victorious British and their allies eagerly took back with them to their own countries.
In England, as elsewhere, Victorian diners glorified the menu and decorated with it flamboyant decoration, embossing and gold-edged finery.
However, the menu’s golden period followed the introduction of colour lithography in about 1840.
Hotels, restaurants and gentlemen’s clubs actively competed with each another to produce the most impressive menus with London’s Savage Club being among the most inventive.
Theirs were tours de force embroidered on satin or trimmed with lace!
Apart from the visual joy of old menus – they look charming mounted as a group and framed in the dining room – they are also fascinating records of social history describing the mountains of exotic foods our great grandparents enjoyed at great grand dinner parties.
Most sought after are those from early air and steamship travel, while famous restaurants such as the Savoy, often commissioned popular artists of the day to illustrate them.
Picture frames with sheets of glass front and back are a great way of displaying your collection, allowing you to enjoy the decoration on the cover without sacrificing the information inside.
Alternatively, use an album such as one for photographs, but don’t be tempted to paste them down. Instead, mount them with photographic corners. Like stamps, their value is negated if they are stuck.
Menus make a charming conversation piece – specially at a dinner party of your own, which leads me on to a related collecting subject: menu holders.
Visit a restaurant these days and the menu is generally brought to you by a waiter and taken away again after you have ordered.
In Victorian and Edwardian days, the menu stood on the table, held flag-like by some simple but usually ingenious device, so that it was always at hand.
Sometimes, the holders were nothing more than a plain metal disc with either a clip or a slot in to which the menu was pushed to hold it upright.
But then there were posh restaurants where everything on the diners’ tables followed a distinct design that echoed the style of the establishment and, of course, the prevailing fashion of the day.
Thus, a sober gentleman’s club, all leather armchairs and oak paneling, would chose matching menu holders, usually in silver with the mutest of decoration, possibly just the club crest and motto.
Upmarket city hotels and restaurants, on the other hand, would be sure to follow current fashion. When Art Nouveau was all the rage, menu holders would be far less understated than previously.
Expect to find flowing sensual examples, all flowers and femmes fleurs with exotic tendrils and complex curves (both plants and ladies!).
The arrival of the Art Deco era put an end to all that and fashionable restaurants were obliged to adopt the geometric zig-zags and odeonesque angles the fashion demanded.
Menu holders are found in a variety of materials including porcelain, ivory, glass and several different metals, notably hotel-quality electroplated base metal.
Examples of menu holders from such establishments rarely come on to the market in anything other than singles, the value of each of which depends on the quality of design and material from which it is constructed.
A simple glass or pot holder could be yours for a fiver, a good Deco example for �80-100 or more.
If it’s a set of menu holders you’re after, then a country house contents sale could provide the answer.
Preference was given to silver, silver gilt or good quality silver plate and the holders would have been produced in sets – usually cased – to match the table silver (or flatware, as it is called).
Chances are, such sets would have been handed down over several generations and often they are decorated with family mottoes and crests.
These make a fascinating area of research for today’s inquisitive collectors who, with a good reference library book listing such things, can often trace the development of a family and to discover exactly which branch or member ordered the menu holders and when.
Pictures show a group of menus from the Cunard White Star liner Queen Elizabeth, each dating from 1947. They cost me a fiver each