Graphic Design in Historical Menus

Plantation Kitchen menu

Late 19th-century restaurant menus were much smaller and almost dainty compared to today’s larger menus. Although sizes might range from 3 x 4 inches to 12 x 9 inches, most menus were typically 4 x 6 inches, and there would be a variety of typical design-types.

Thanksgiving Day menu, November 30, 1898, Hotel Doxey Thanksgiving Day menu, Hotel Doxey.

Some were simply single sheets of elegant cardstock containing small illustrations with dishes listed on one side; others were book-style and opened up with silken cords tied at the spine; some had fine fringed silken trim borders; and still others might be cut into particular shapes or folded in a decorative fashion.

Most menus were only one page long or, if book style, covered two pages. The name of the restaurant was frequently optional but, if present, it might include the restaurant’s location and the name of the manager as well. Menus seemed to grow larger over the decades, and using the Bohn Collection as evidence, one might guess that it was the 1930s that saw the menu develop into the large size that we are familiar with today–in America at least.