Sensational Celebrations at the Historic St. Charles Hotel

A New Year represents new opportunities, the chance for change, and a fresh start; no doubt this was what many American citizens were hoping for when they rang in the new year in 1908. The year of 1907 had brought hard times to many Americans- the Knickerbocker Crisis, or Panic of 1907, had wreaked havoc on many people and caused monetary strain in many households. This financial crisis was felt worldwide in the economies of other countries, not just the United States. However, on New Years Day in 1908 only a few months after what is considered the second largest recession of the 20th century, taking a back seat only to the Great Depression[1], some people of upper class means got to enjoy a luxurious day at the historic St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans as seen on the menu for this event. While at this classy inn and restaurant guests got to order off of a menu which featured not only edible delicacies of the time, but also entertainment options for how they could spend the rest of their holiday. As the menu from the St. Charles Hotel shows through its dining and amusement options, those who attended this meal were among the upper class and most likely social elite.

The St. Charles Hotel in and of itself was a very well-respected piece of architecture and destination. The original St. Charles hotel was built in 1837 near the corner of Canal and St. Charles. It had a grand design with columns and a rotunda with a dome on top which could be considered to be reminiscent of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. Unfortunately, this beautiful building burnt down in 1851.

pic 1
The First St. Charles Hotel before it burnt down in 1851, only 14 years after opening

The ashes were practically still smoldering when the decision was already made to rebuild a new St. Charles hotel and the second one was opened in the same location as the first in 1852. The design for the remake was remarkably close to the first, although a noticeable difference is that it was missing the grand dome on top. This hotel was the very one which General Butler ordered to be quartered in and allowed to make his Head Quarters while he was in charge of Union occupation in New Orleans. Refused by the manager, Butler seized the hotel by force and occupied the building only a very few days before finding better quarters elsewhere.

pic2
The Second St. Charles Hotel, modeled after the original, which then burnt down in 1894.

Then, for the second time, the St. Charles Hotel burned down in 1894. The third hotel once again went up astonishingly quickly after the fire, with the construction being done within the same year, 1894. This time the architecture was very different than the first two and took on more of a Breaux Art style, a design which was popular in France at the time. It is this third and final St. Charles Hotel in which the magnificent New Year’s Day Dinner took place in 1908. This inn and restaurant within were a popular spot for the social elite to go and stay the night, or even just have a nice meal. Besides just local politicians and business men some very influential and important people stayed here, including three presidents: McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft. This atmosphere of class and grandeur is exactly what was in place on January 1st, 1908.

pic3
The third St. Charles Hotel which took on a different architectural style than both of its predecessors

As far as specific guests who were staying at the St. Charles hotel on New Year’s Eve and possibly New Year’s Day, it is possible to get some specific names of visitors who took up a room at the historic hotel, all thanks to a local New Orleans Newspaper, The Times-Picayune, which has entire columns dedicated to mentioning distinguished tourists who were in town on any given day and where they were staying. As seen below there is a section titled “Personal Points” in which there is the specific mention of one couple who were apparently ran a rather successful system for planting sugar. Other significant people to stay at the St. Charles are the head of Pinkerton Private Investigation Agency, an Official from the Department of the Interior, and some big shot public speaker who came to town[2].

pic4
The St. Charles was host to some very wealthy guests and big names, such as certain presidents and even a certain uninvited Union Army General

Another portion of this menu which show that the New Year’s Day dinner was quiet the event is the amusements page and musical program. The music which was  by the Meade Orchestra, led by Jas. A. Meade was rather uplifting or jovial sounding and no doubt reflected the mood of this event. There was also a variety of suggested forms of way to pass leisure time during the afternoon into the evening. One of the amusements listed is that of horse racing which took place at City Park where the old horse racing tracks were. If the horses were not racy enough for somebody, they could also make their way over to the Greenwall Theatre which was located in the French Quarter where there were shows of Vaudeville and Burlesque. While today’s standards of burlesque are rather scandalous, this was not always the case. Vaudeville and burlesque, or “burleyQ,” used to be more of a variety show which would usually feature different kinds of acts and often a comedic affect with the burlesque portion just referring to beautiful women who would sing, dance, or just joke around[3]. Some other options to pass the time included what appeared to be a very promising show by the Milano Grand Opera Co at the lovely French Opera House, the play “Trilby,” the musical “45 Minutes from Broadway” performed at the Tulane Theatre with a special matinee taking place on New Year’s Day, and some “Advanced Vaudeville” taking place at the Orpheum Theatre, just a short walk from the original venue of the St. Charles Hotel. [4]

pic5 Another portion of this menu which show that the New Year’s Day dinner was quiet the event is the amusements page and musical program. The music which was performed by the Meade Orchestra, led by Jas. A. Meade was rather uplifting or jovial sounding and no doubt reflected the mood of this event. There was also a variety of suggested forms of way to pass leisure time during the afternoon into the evening. One of the amusements listed is that of horse racing which took place at City Park where the old horse racing tracks were. If the horses were not racy enough for somebody, they could also make their way over to the Greenwall Theatre which was located in the French Quarter where there were shows of Vaudeville and Burlesque. While today’s standards of burlesque are rather scandalous, this was not always the case. Vaudeville and burlesque, or “burleyQ,” used to be more of a variety show which would usually feature different kinds of acts and often a comedic affect with the burlesque portion just referring to beautiful women who would sing, dance, or just joke around[3]. Some other options to pass the time included what appeared to be a very promising show by the Milano Grand Opera Co at the lovely French Opera House, the play “Trilby,” the musical “45 Minutes from Broadway” performed at the Tulane Theatre with a special matinee taking place on New Year’s Day, and some “Advanced Vaudeville” taking place at the Orpheum Theatre, just a short walk from the original venue of the St. Charles Hotel. [4]  pic6

Regardless of how impressive some of the features of this menu may be and what they represent, there is clearly still one shining star: the food. There is a wide variety of Items which tell a story of what kind of event is taking place, the mood, the guests, and of the individual food items themselves. The first item which is seen on here is the “Tartelette de Caviar.” Then, as it is now, caviar was a commodity and not something which the average person would have even at a celebratory dinner such as this, especially when America went through one of its most difficult financial challenges about three months before.  It was no small task to get caviar form the source to the plates of consumers, and “getting caviar to the market continued to be a major undertaking, with numerous lengthy states. This caused prices to remain high and continued high cost associated with caviar became its defining quality and allure.”[5]. At this period in history, only the wealthy would be able to afford what has been called “Russia’s Black Gold.”  The next item on the menu which is truly intriguing is the Bayou Cook Oysters. These delicacies of the Marsh were mostly a local food item and are really only seen between the years of 1900-1908.[6] However, these exquisite shellfish went extinct due to habitat loss which explains why they disappear from menus after such a short amount of time being served.[7]

Another course popular at American banquets of the nineteenth and early twentieth century is turtle soup. This item’s title is Green Turtle a l’Anglaise, which roughly translates to “Turtle in the American manner” most likely is referring to turtle soup since that was a classic in this country, and even one of American Novelist Mark Twain’s favorite meals. It is a highly regarded course and has even been called the “best money can buy.”[8]

For the unaware restauranteur, Consommé is a kind of broth soup, which may seem fairly simple which it is; Consommé Washington, however, is no common everyday item. This version of the clear soup has some claves cheese added in along with julienne of white celery, and truffle, all simmered in madeira wine.[9] Another large ticket item would be the Sheepshead Au Gratin. Contrary to what first thoughts may be to the average person, this has nothing to do with a sheep- au contraire. Sheepshead is actually a saltwater variety of fish which “was prized throughout Louisiana as the fish of choice for stews, soups and baking.”[10]

duck hunting
Due to over hunting of ducks there were bag limit restrictions in an attempt to save the populations of waterfowl

The last big-ticket item on the menu that is of a lot of interest is the roast Mallard duck. At this point in history, there was still the large-scale game hunting of these waterfowl. They were hunted frequently and those that shot them could made a good living by just filling up their bags with the daily haul of ducks. While these birds were prized to begin with, they were worth even more if the hunters plucked them on their own time. Again, this was not an item which would be showing up on the plates of every middle-class family in America, unless perhaps they hunted them on their own rather than bought it at market. However, after years of this hunting of the Mallard duck the Migratory Bird Act passed in 1909 which made market hunting of them illegal.[11]

The St. Charles Hotel alone was a symbol of high status, wealth, and power. People who possessed all three of these attributes were the kinds of patrons which the St. Charles Hotel saw on a daily basis, and especially for their special events, such as the New Year’s Day dinner put on in 1908. The menu for this even exhibits the class which was expected from those who would attend, from the set list of the orchestra, to the suggested activities of plays and musicals, and especially in the items presented in the menu. These show the money had by the patrons as well as the atmosphere of this group which was jovial and happy- after all, who can be at an event with “Fancy Macaroons” and frozen eggnog, and not be in a jolly mood?[12]

[1] Tallman, Ellis W. and Moen, Jon R., “The Panic of 1907: This Global Financial Crisis Inspired the Monetary Reform Movement and Lead to the Creation of the Federal Reserve System,” Federal Reserve History, December 4, 2015, https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/panic_of_1907.

[2] “Times-Picayune 1837-1988.” Accessed April 7, 2018. http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=B53L50NLMTUyMzA3MzMwNS4yNjE5ODoxOjE1OjE0MS4xNjQuMTE5LjE1Ng&p_action=doc&s_lastnonissuequeryname=11&d_viewref=search&p_queryname=11&p_docnum=1&p_docref=v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-122A75542BEF0E18@2417941-1228132748509210@6-125FDC9C96E87CC6@News%20And%20Notables%20AT%20The%20New%20Orleans%20Hotels.%20New%20Grunewald%20to%20Be%20Opened%20With%20Midnight.

[3] Mintz, Lawrence E. “Humor and Ethnic Stereotypes in Vaudeville and Burlesque.” MELUS 21, no. 4 (1996): 19-28. doi:10.2307/467640.

[4] “Times-Picayune 1837-1988.” Accessed April 7, 2018. http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=A51Q4FBKMTUyMzA3MzMwNS4yNjE5ODoxOjE1OjE0MS4xNjQuMTE5LjE1Ng&p_action=doc&s_lastnonissuequeryname=6&d_viewref=search&p_queryname=6&p_docnum=1&p_docref=v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-122A75550B7F9A80@2417942-1228132766BB7378@9-125FDCE219D15750@Amusements.

[5] Vecsei, Paul. “Gastronome 101: How capitalism killed the sturgeons.” Environmental Biology Of Fishes 73, no. 1 (May 2005): 111-116. Environment Index, EBSCOhost (accessed April 7, 2018).

[6] “St. Charles Hotel: Menus: Whats on the Menu?” Accessed April 1, 2018. http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/43546/explore.

[7] Ibid

[8] 1838. “HIGH LIVING.” Poughkeepsie Casket 2, no. 6: 43. American Literary Periodicals, 1835-1858, EBSCOhost (accessed April 7, 2018).

[9] Bilderback, Leslie, “Consommé,” The Culinary Masterclass, 2018. http://culinarymasterclass.com/consomme/.

[10] Folse, John, “A Taste of Louisiana with Chef John Folse: 106 Baked Sheepshead,” (2018) http://culinarymasterclass.com/consomme/.

[11] “Harvesting the River: Market Hunting,” Illinois State Museum. Accessed April 2, 2018.  http://www.museum.state.il.us/RiverWeb/harvesting/harvest/waterfowl/industry/market_hunting.html.

[12] “St. Charles Hotel: Menus: Whats on the Menu?” Accessed April 1, 2018. http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/43546/explore.