Category Archives: history

Find of the day: Hancock Tavern menu

hancocktaverndoublemenu

When I found this menu from Boston’s Hancock Tavern [shown front & back] at a flea market my first question was how old it was. As soon as I began researching I learned that proprietor Wadsworth & Co. had taken over in 1897 and that the building pictured was torn down in the spring of 1903. That narrowed things down.

At that point I thought I knew enough to consider the question of the tavern’s history, starting with “Built 1634″ as noted on the menu.

Then, everything began to unravel, including the menu’s date.

hancocktavern1867corncourtI discovered that Edward & Lucina Wadsworth had reopened the Hancock Tavern in 1904 at “the identical site of the original historic structure.” Which had been razed. It took a while to figure that one out but I eventually determined that the reborn Hancock Tavern was located in the rear, Corn Court side, of a new office building facing on State Street. [sketch of map fragment shows Corn Court and Hancock Tavern in 1867]

Then I found a story about a menu like mine found in a collection of items related to the Hancock Tavern — similar except that it said “Visit the Historic Tea Room Up Stairs. In this room the ‘Boston Tea Party’ made their plans, and dressed as Mohawk Indians to destroy the tea in Boston harbor, Dec. 16, 1773.” Since mine simply says “Private Supper Rooms Up Stairs for Ladies and Gentlemen,” I decided that it probably dates from the reincarnated Hancock Tavern, which would put it between 1904 and approximately 1910.

Much bigger mysteries surrounded the history of Hancock Tavern. By the late 19th century legends about the tavern abounded, beginning with the notion that it dated from 1634 as the continuation of a tavern begun by Samuel Coles. It was also said to have hosted John Hancock, exiled French king Louis Philippe, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and French foreign minister Talleyrand. But the grandest legend concerned the conspirators in the “Boston tea party.” Beginning in the 1880s, the various proprietors of the Hancock Tavern spun historic tales about this.

hancocktaverndec1898In December of 1898, the Daughters of the American Revolution, dressed as Colonial maids, met at the Hancock Tavern to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the tea party. On the wall was a somewhat more detailed inscription, likely put there by the Wadsworths: “In this room the Boston tea party made their plans and dressed as Mohawk Indians, and went to Griffin’s (now Liverpool) wharf, where the ships Beaver and Eleanor and Dartmouth lay, and threw overboard 342 chests of tea, Dec. 16, 1773.” Later, the Wadsworths produced a souvenir booklet of historic lore.

But the link between the tavern and the Revolution, as well as its ancient status, were thrown into doubt in 1903 when City Registrar Edward W. McGlenen announced that the just-razed building that had housed the Hancock Tavern had been erected between 1807 and 1812. Furthermore, he said, its predecessor on the same site, a two-story house, had not been granted a tavern license until 1790, ruling out any associations with the Revolution. He also showed that Samuel Coles’ Inn, reputedly built in 1634, was an entirely separate property, thereby demolishing the Hancock Tavern’s claim to be Boston’s oldest tavern. The legends, he said, had developed from a number of fanciful books and articles from the 19th century that were in conflict with town records.

And so my menu, though still more than 100 years old, lost some of its charm.

On the bright side, though, I learned a few things about the operation of 19th-century taverns. I learned that Mary Duggan, widow of the first licensee, ran the tavern for a number of years after her second husband died. In addition to supplying the finest liquors, she advertised in 1825 that she had engaged a “professed COOK” who would have soup ready from 10 to 12 o’clock (then the standard time to eat soup), and would prepare supper parties “at the shortest notice.”

I also realized how much turnover there was in the tavern business. During most of the 19th century the Hancock Tavern was leased out to a succession of proprietors who either handled its alcohol and food service or the entire operation, which included lodging.

It fell on hard days sometime before the Wadsworths took over in 1897. Their energetic attempts to raise its historic value may have sprung in part from the fact that it had spent some years as a gambling den. In a city with many old buildings, most Bostonians did not care about it.

Having the bad luck to be located in what was fast becoming Boston’s financial district, the building was doomed, but the legend of Hancock Tavern’s link to the tea party lived on. The Arkansas Gazette reported in 1976:

hancocktavern1976© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Famous in its day: Fera’s

fera'sfrontIn the second half of the 19th century wealthy families patronized Fera’s Confectionery and Restaurant in Boston, which had earned a reputation for high quality pastries and candies throughout the East. The business was established ca. 1855 in the basement of the Temple Club on West Street, and after 1876 was located on Tremont across from the Common and near the Boston Theatre. [The trade card shown front and back in this post is probably from the 1880s.]

At Fera’s, patrons could enjoy dainty luncheons or after-theater suppers or could arrange to have the firm cater their next dinner party, complete with table ornaments. Women shoppers might stop there for lunch or bon bons after a visit to the shopping district where, in 1866 for instance, they could consult a clairvoyant or pick up such things as freckle lotion, a new perfume from Mexico called Opoponax, potted meat, or library slippers. Fera’s was especially popular with female patrons, as was always the case with confectioneries in the days when many other kinds of restaurants were considered off-limits to respectable women. [see 1866 advertisement below]

fera's1866

Respectability in eating places was not easily achieved then and it’s surprising that Fera’s was able to rescue its reputation from a scandal it was caught up in not long after opening. It was constantly in the newspapers in 1857 because of a sensational divorce case in which a husband alleged that his wife had committed an “adulterous act” in Fera’s. Although the defendant’s lawyer argued that no such occurrence took place since the restaurant was “a wide hall” that was “open all the way through” (i.e., not divided into small private rooms or boxes), the divorce was granted, branding the defendant as an adulteress and leaving in doubt what had occurred where.

Somehow Fera’s survived the scandal, as well as George Fera’s own marital breakup, fires, robberies, changes of address, and a couple of bankruptcies.

At the Tremont address Fera’s was divided into two sections with the restaurant occupying space behind the confectionery and separated by an arched doorway. After redecorating in 1887, the restaurant was painted in cream and gold, with lower walls in marble and upper walls hung with large mirrors. Electric lights were installed, producing a  bright and glittering style that emulated a Paris café.

fera'sback

Like many Europeans in the culinary trades who came to this country, George Fera had traveled a prestigious career path before arriving on U.S. soil in his early 20s. Born in Lübeck, Germany, he compressed a lifetime into a few years. Starting out at a young age he had trained in confectionery in Paris, succeeding so well that he was appointed confectioner to the Czar of Russia in St. Petersburg, where he remained for a number of years. Upon his arrival in the United States, he went to work at a New Orleans hotel, moving from there to New York City where he was employed by the famed confectioner Henry Maillard. He was said to have made for Maillard’s the first caramels produced in this country.

George Fera retired around 1890 and his two sons, who had been working with him for years, took over. In 1892 Fera’s closed and the furnishings and equipment were auctioned, including in part: “30 marble-top saloon tables, 75 bentwood chairs, 5 nickel plated show cases, one show case with deck, one square [show case] with fancy chocolates, two large mirrors, candy jars, 50 doz. wine, cordial and hot water glasses, decanters, Eper[g]nes punch bowl, triple plated spoons, knives and forks, plated castors, water pitchers and cold water urn, 600 decorated French china plates, platters, compotes, pitchers, cups and saucers, &c., Jap. plates, fine lot candies, French wedding cake ornaments, fruits and marmalades in jars, costume crackers, candy machines, bon bons, ice cream apparatus, &c.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015

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Basic fare: waffles

waffleshop101In the early 19th century Philadelphians enjoyed driving their carriages to the falls on the Schuykill River, the area now known as East Falls, then lined with hotels and restaurants. Eating places there specialized in a favorite dish associated with Philadelphia long before the advent of cheese steaks, namely catfish and waffles. (I’d like to believe that the dish did not include maple syrup.)

Jumping ahead some 50 years, waffles also turn up again in Philadelphia as a featured specialty at a Civil War fundraiser in which an old-time kitchen recreated the food and cooking methods of early German settlers. While gazing at souvenirs such as Benjamin Franklin’s desk and a copper kettle used to make coffee for Revolutionary War soldiers, diners could indulge themselves with buttered waffles with sugar and cinnamon, sausages, or “omelette etwas” (scrambled eggs).

Of course waffles could be found in many restaurants over the past 200 years but they seem to have been especially popular in certain places and times. The “Wild West” was well supplied with waffle kitchens and houses. In mining camps and early settlements in Oregon, California, and Colorado waffles turn up on many menus in the 1880s and 1890s. Only in the West was the term “waffle foundry” used to describe lunch rooms like those in Los Angeles where in 1894 “a large waffle, swimming in melted butter and syrup is served for ten cents.”

2GirlsWaffleHouseWell into the 20th century waffles were familiar fare in boom towns such as Anchorage, Alaska, and the oilfields of Oklahoma. Around 1915 two young women from Seattle decided to seek their fortune in Alaska with the Two Girls Waffle House (pictured). In what was not much more than a shack with a canvas roof they could handle only eight customers at the counter. But after a year they had made enough money from railroad construction workers to build a permanent structure. A similar success story could be told about the two young men who ran the Kansas City Waffle House in Drumright, Oklahoma, before graduating to a bigger enterprise in Tulsa.

montgomery301Waffles were also a staple of tea rooms in the early 20th century. In places as varied as big city afternoon tea haunts and humble eateries in old New England homesteads, waffles attracted patrons. In 1917 New Yorkers could choose among the Colonia Tea Room,  At the Sign of the Green Tea Pot, or the Brown Betty for their waffles fix. In the early 1920s, the fantastical Tam O’Shanter Inn of Los Angeles, then known as Montgomery’s Country Inn (pictured), offered chicken and waffles, a common dish at roadside tea rooms then. Tea room and coffee house magnate Alice Foote MacDougall attributed her successful career to the waffles she served in her Little Coffee House Grand Central Station restaurant in 1919.

As the Wells Manufacturing Company, maker of commercial waffle bakers, advertised in 1948: “Look! There’s a lot of Money in Waffles!”

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Sweet and sour Polynesian

One remarkable accomplishment of Polynesian restaurants was how they lured the male diner without using steak as bait. Who would have believed mid-century Homo Americanus Modernus could swallow so many sugary rum drinks, pineapple chunks, and sticky sauces?

Another notable coup was that these tropical resorts were so obviously fake it was preposterous to accuse them of it. It is easy to imagine how Vic Bergeron, originator of Trader Vic’s, would have roared with laughter if charged with inauthenticity. (“Jeez, Honey, that was the whole point!”) Guests were well aware that the Tiki gods, fishnets, and outrigger canoes were artfully staged to stimulate escape fantasies, and vaguely conscious that the menu represented a culinary amalgam that never existed in the outside world. Bergeron once stated that the food of Polynesian islanders was “primitive” and “not acceptable to American tastes.” Stephen Crane, mastermind of Kon-Tiki Ports, admitted that many ingredients used in Polynesian dishes – bean sprouts, water chestnuts, tomatoes, and pea pods – didn’t grow on the islands. Who cared?

Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s were the first Polynesian restaurants, beginning in California in 1934 and 1938 respectively. It was quite a while, though, before eating in pseudo-grass-huts became a fad. Around 1957 only about 20 Polynesian restaurants were known. But by 1962, after Hawaiian statehood and the debuts of the movie South Pacific and TV show Hawaiian Eye, the number had grown to 200, according to a National Restaurant Association estimate.

Many were in big hotels where their job was to boost profits. As a Wall Street Journal headline succinctly put it in 1959, “Cocoanut Milk, Idols, Waterfalls Help Hotels Lift Food, Drink Take.” The Polynesian restaurant was about merchandising. Whether it was Bonko Bonko soup at Columbus’s Kahiki, Pineapple Teriyaki Garni at The Lahala House in Corpus Christi, or a take-home scorpion drink bowl (pictured) at Trader Vic’s, the concept was greater than all the inexpensive ingredients combined.

The appeal of exotic drinks held steady longer than the rest of the package. Already by the mid-1960s, American and “continental” standbys were infiltrating menus. Steaks made a comeback and diners could also choose from a broad array of restaurant items not even remotely tropical such as clam chowder, chicken cordon bleu, and hush puppies. In the 1970s more adventurous diners rejected Cantonese, the core of Polynesian cuisine, for spicier Szechuan and Hunan. Decor was seen as a growing problem, too, as the cost of importing tapa cloths and outrigger canoes rose. Restaurateurs searching for a concept were counseled to think about Old English which was easier to accessorize, according to the journal Cooking for Profit, only requiring some paneling and “a few old swords, or other recognizable ‘art objects.’”

By the mid-1970s and into the 1980s critics heaped scorn on things Polynesian, food especially. It seemed hard to believe NY Times critic Craig Claiborne had given it an ounce of credibility in 1958. Actor Yul Brynner sued Trader Vic’s in NY’s Plaza Hotel in 1979 after eating spareribs there and acquiring trichinosis. Ten years later Vic’s was booted out of the Plaza. Vic himself, having died in 1984, was spared the ignominious news. The long-lived Kahiki closed in 2000. Yet, even today Polynesian motifs cast a campy spell.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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