The New York Southern Society

hotel savoy

The New York Southern Society

The Hotel Savoy- February 22nd, 1899

My chosen menu is a special events menu. It is for the thirteenth annual dinner of the New York Southern Society which was hosted at the Hotel Savoy in New York city on February 22, 1899. There are several things which interest me about this menu, the first being the menu’s cover, the second the language it is written in, and lastly the impact the dinner and assumed clout the New York Southern Society had on the New York community.

The name of the society for which this menu is purposed is interesting enough. What exactly could this organization mean by calling themselves the New York Southern Society? How does an individual or entity maintain an identity of southerness while belonging to New York? According to the 1899 version of the society’s bylaws and constitutions the society was organized in 1886 and incorporated under the laws of the state of New York in 1889. Page five of the document states, “The particular business or object of such a society shall be: to cherish and perpetuate the memories and traditions of the Southern People and to cultivate friendly relations between Southern men resident or temporarily sojourning in New York City.” Membership was open to “full age” males born in the South or whose ancestors were born in the South and who lived within 50 miles of the city. So, in summary the New York Southern Society was meant to help Southern men or men who have a cultural tie to the South maintain a sense of Southern identify and perpetuate the memories, ideals,  and cultural traditions that are so “cherished” by the Southern People, as the constitution and bylaws so boldly claim, in culturally foreign northern lands. This leads one to wonder what exactly are these traditions and memories the society is trying to maintain.

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The upper portion of the menu contains the photographs of WM. M. Polk, M.D. and Augustus Van Wyck, the president and vice-president of the New York Southern Society. The photographs are taking close up portrait style. They are quite large considering the menu’s layout. The two men look regal in what appears to be some sort of wartime high ranking officers uniform. They are also wearing sashes. Being this is a Southern society I immediately jumped to the conclusion that the both men were wearing Confederate civil War regalia, and the society was attempting to tie itself to the past Confederacy and attempting to paint the Confederate rebellion in a light of grandeur and nostalgia. I believed this was a subconscious effort whose initial detection was supposed to be thwarted by the display of a red, white, and blue striped ribbon at  the top of the menu. Further research revealed that the two society officers were not wearing Confederate regalia. However, the image at the bottom of the menu’s cover is very concerning. In the menu’s lower portion is the picture of a very impoverished lower class black couple.

NYPL menu assignment

(Close up of menu’s “old folks at home” image and caption”)

The image was taken in 1894 which means that these two individuals were old enough to have more than likely been ex-slaves and were standing in front what was likely an ex-slave cabin. This is the image the New York Southern Society chose to feature on their menu. They chose to show black people post-emancipation in an undignified negative way. They did not choose to show a well-to-do emancipated black couple but wanted instead to tie themselves to the idea of black people being kept down in society by the bonds of poverty even while they were yet free. This is the type of memory the New York Southern Society wanted to cherish and maintain, and combined with the society’s officers sporting war regalia, I am led to believe an effort was being made to convey the message of the South will one day raise again with the visuals of this menu.

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(Event’s music reminiscing of Dixie’s non-inclusive racist  past)

The New York Southern Society continues to add to the idea of the South being tied to grandeur by writing almost the entire menu’s food selection in French. Why would an organization for Southern People write a menu in French? Prior to the 1920’s a menu being written in French gave the dishes and the dinner, restaurant, etc. an air of sophistication and upper class attitude. Which is why something as simple as lamb rack casserole (or Rack of Lamb casserole) was translated into Carre D’agneau En Casserole. It was unique that a casserole dish was even featured in this menu when it was found only on 1 out of every 557 menus within the NYPL menu database. Even though its menu possessed a sort of plebeian dish (a casserole), the New York Southern Society did not seem to be the place for the lower middle class to belong.

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(French menu items and toast saluting Wu Fang Ting)

The New York Southern Society’s dinner that February 22nd of 1899 featured one very high-profile guest, the Chinese minister Wu Ting Fang. Having a Chinese minister at a dinner at any time would have been usual, but during the Philippine American War is particularly usually. A toast was even dedicated to the Chinese minster in which he and his government were described as “Our newest, and nearest neighbor on our Western border.”  The whole event was featured in the New York Times whose headline read, “SOUTHERN SOCIETY DINNER; Wu Ting Fang, the Chinese Minister, the Guest of Honor. HE TALKS OF THE PHILIPPINES Pleased that China Will Have a Good Neighbor — Wants Our Exclusion Laws Modified.” I wonder just how much pull the New York Southern Society had to have to host the minister of China during such a crucial time and to be recognized by the public so much so that they were featured in the New York Times.

The New York Southern Society was obviously a high-profile organization that possessed clout and also some questionable intentions. The menu allows the reader a glimpse into what the organization stood for at the time and the societal values which it held in high esteem. It also provida look at a pivotal moment in international relations between the US and China.

By: Asha Thomas