I recently wrote about a scrapbook documenting General Douglas MacArthur's visit to Massachusetts that made its way to the preservation lab because it needed to be re-housed. When an item comes to the lab, my primary concern is addressing its preservation needs but I also spend a little time examining these items and appreciating their historical value. When I started working on this scrapbook I initially thought that it only contained photographs, but I was surprised to find that nestled amongst the pages was a menu for a dinner held in General MacArthur's honor. Personally, one of my favorite items in special collections are historical menus. On an aesthetic level, I love looking at the intricate designs, illustrations, and ornaments that adorn menus from the 19th and 20th centuries. On a research level, I appreciate the information that we can glean from them, which often provide insight into popular foods and dinner customs, entertainment culture, class, and the economy during a specific point in history.
The MacArthur menu is a dinner menu from the Oval Room at the Sheraton Copley Plaza (now the Fairmont Copley Plaza) and is dated July 25, 1951. According to the hotel's current website, the Oval Room is considered one of the most beautiful rooms in Boston with a sky and cloud mural painted on its ceiling. Given this location and the fact that a special menu was printed for the occasion, we can guess that MacArthur's dinner was a formal affair. The cover of the menu is illustrated with his profile and a welcome message, and our copy also includes his signature, written in pencil. The following two pages list the wide variety of items that were available for dinner, ranging from the "Chef's Special" - a grilled ham steak Hawaiian style for $2.00 - to the sirloin steak for two, which at $9.00 is the priciest item on the menu. When I come across a historical menu, I always like to examine the options and figure out what I would have ordered and how much it would have cost me. I also usually find that there are at least a few menu items that aren't familiar to me, or that don't sound appetizing at all to my 21st century palate. I encourage our readers to take a close look at the menu and do the same!
Beyond food items, the menu also tells us a little bit about nightlife culture in the 1950s. The menu indicates that music and dinner service was until 9:00 p.m., followed by dancing until close. There was no cover charge at the Oval Room, but I was curious about two taxes that were printed on the menu - a Massachusetts old age tax of 5% and an amusement tax of 20% (but only after 9:00 p.m.). A little bit of digging revealed that the Massachusetts old age tax was a 5% state tax on meals that cost over $1.00 to help fund the Old Age Assistance Fund, a state program that was similar to Social Security and was in existence from 1941 to 1955. A version of the amusement tax, also referred to as the fun tax, is still around today. Tickets to sporting events, concerts, and other "fun" activities are exempt from sales tax, but they can be subject to separate amusement tax. Luckily, eligible amusement and recreational services today are not taxed at 20% today like they were in 1951!
The MacArthur menu is now housed in an acid-free paper sleeve and stored along with the photographs from the scrapbook. Taking some time to look deeper into the content of the items that I work on is a fun part of my job, and I look forward to the next interesting item that makes its way to the preservation lab.