The History of Children’s Menus: The New Haven Railroad

New York_New Haven_Hartford_Logo

A quick history lesson:

The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad company, also known as The New Haven Railroad was created in 1872 operating in the states of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Since The New Haven Railroad was one of the only railroads in America to use steam, diesel, and electric locomotives at the same time, it was considered the largest and most important form of transportation in New England. 

1929 New Haven Railroad map.  (NHRHTA collection)
1929 New Haven Railroad Map

Not Only was New Haven Railroad known for its innovative multitasking, but its food services as well. The New Haven Railroad was famous for the food that was served on board to its passenger trains and it was the one of the only railroads in the country that boasted of earning a profit on its food service during the modern era.

Like many other railroads, the New Haven began to offer special menus for children in its dining cars during the 1930s. The special children's meals were much less expensive than the Table de Hote (full meal) offerings on the regular dining car menus. Additionally, portion sizes were smaller than on the regular menu and the meals were specially selected to appeal to the less sophisticated tastes of children. Special children's menus seem to have gone out of favor on the New Haven during the late 1940s. Despite the fact that it is not marked with the railroad's name, this is a New Haven Railroad children's menu. It is likely that this was the first special children's menu distributed on the New Haven Railroad. This is a standard menu design that was used by a number of railroads during the mid to late 1930s when the children's menu concept was new. Note the illustrations from the "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" children's story. This menu is from the collection of  Marc Frattasio .
A children’s menus distributed on the New Haven Railroad dining cars in the 1930s. These are illustrations of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” in a attempt to entertain children and get their attention.

The New Haven Railroad began to offer special menus for children in its dining cars in the 1930s.  It is likely that this was the first special children’s menu distributed on the New Haven Railroad. This is a standard menu design that was used by a number of railroads during the mid to late 1930s when the children’s menu concept was new. Yep! You read that right. Children’s menus did not always exist and in my opinion it is hard to believe that there was ever a time without them. A decade before the 1920s it was rare to see children dining out in public. They had to be well-off/rich or they had to be a guest in a hotel because restaurants not attached to hotels generally did not serve children.

In the 1920s, Prohibition Laws caused the restaurant industry to expand on the idea of serving children. The Prohibition was the ban of alcohol in efforts to better society by reducing corruption but this also caused for there to be a major loss in revenue from liquor. To make up for this loss the alternative of catering to children in restaurants came into play.

r/trains - 1938 Children's Menu on the New Haven Railroad [x-post /r/VintageMenus]
New Haven Railroad circus-themed children’s menu distributed in 1938.


The New Haven Railroad food services distributed a children’s menu in 1938 as well. It is an illustration and shape of a circus elephant. The 6 meal options inside of the menu are named after circus animals as well including the lion, monkey, hippopotamus, giraffe, elephant and camel. While observing this menu I noticed that the meals are very plain compared to the standard menus on the New Haven Railroad.

The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Company Menu distributed on March 3rd, 1928.

This standard menu is from 1928. It consists of 110 dishes including options such as Chatham Oysters on Shell, Sirloin Steak and Roast Lion on Pork. In comparison the children’s menu has Broiled Lamb Chop, Scrambled Eggs & Toast, a Vegetable Plate, and a bowl of soup. Do you catch my drift? The New Haven Children’s Menu is unexpectedly plain in comparison to the standard menu. When children menus were brought on the scene it was decided that children could not eat what their parents ate due to the rules and limitations of pediatrician, Emmett Holt.

The Care and Feeding of Children: A Catechism for the use of Mothers and  Children's Nurses (The History of Nursing): Holt, L Emmett: 9781497391604: Books

Emmett Holt wrote The Care and Feeding of Children which was published in 1894. This text instructed mothers, nurses, and chefs on how to properly feed children based on their age. For instance, Emmet Holt states that meat such as bacon, ham, and sausage should be forbidden from a child’s diet until they are 10 years old. This is why you see these options on the standard New Haven Railroad menu but not the children’s menu.

Also there are no fruit options on the children’s menu because fruits were only fed to children during “infancy” to move their bowels. According to Holt, fruits should not be incorporated into their diets regularly because they loosened their bowels and gave them abdominal pain or stomach aches. 

Children who have not hit puberty yet were forbidden to drink other beverages besides milk and water. As you can see on the children’s menu, every meal option was served with Horlick’s Malted Milk which is milk powder mixed with water or milk. It is not very clear as to why they were not just given whole milk but I predict it’s because Emmett Holt pushed the idea that cow’s milk is contaminated. According to The Care and Feeding of Children you had to go through a long process of sterilizing milk to completely move all of the germs and disease. Cow’s milk also expires faster while Horlick’s Malted Milk powder could take up to 10 years to expire. 

Lastly, The breads and crackers fed to children had to be stale and cut thin, a child’s desire for dessert was “unnatural” and “indulgent” (they were only allowed small amounts of ice cream), and soups/broths had to be very plain (children were forbidden to eat tomato soup).

The restrictions and limitations of Emmett Holt was applied to all children’s menus in the United States. Of course many of Holt’s claims have been debunked since but it really left an impact on how children’s menus are viewed. It is socially implied that children can not eat what their parents eat. They are seen as simple and supposedly not handle the intricate, highly flavored and decorated meals like adults can. In my opinion, children’s menus should not even exist. The only need for a children’s menu is to differentiate the portion size because most children do eat less than an adult but they should be served the same meals as their parents. 

Children should enjoy fulfilling and luxurious meals as well. Currently children are fed options like corndogs, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, or a hamburger with fries while On the other hand, their parents are eating steak with a loaded potato or raw oysters. How bizarre is that? Who decided children did not like steak or raw oysters because I definitely do not remember hearing a child say this.

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