Restaurant Menus and The Geographical Imagination:
Recreating The Exotic In America, a Glimpse Into 1940's and 1950's Menus

Jimena RosÚs-Sierra

Restaurants are a ubiquitous part of the American physical and cultural landscape, and as representations in the built environment, they create a sense of place and belonging for their patrons. These establishments are more than places to eat, they are tangible expressions of the society in which they exist. They also represent distant places and realities, the places patrons dream to visit. Embedded within society, restaurants have gained deeply rooted cultural and social meanings, and they serve as reflections of cultural values and norms. Moreover, restaurants produce and sell the public a pre-packaged version of reality to facilitate commercial exchange. Geographical imagination is the ability to be transported to distant and exotic destinations without traveling vast distances. It relies on cultural (textual, visual, and social) assumptions about foreign lands, at the same time it restricts the experience of foreignness to these representations. One question that guides this work asks how menus help shape the geographical imagination of consumers and consumers' experience of exotic and distant locales? Focusing on mid-twentieth century menus, I explore the creation and production of place in the context of economic expansion and prosperity. Seen as cultural artifacts and ephemera, the menus function as windows, revealing exotic destinations recreated on American soil, as well as issues of gender, class, historical relevance, and the importance of restaurants as anchors and landmarks in local economies.

This work primarily focuses on three collections found in the Kroch Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (KRMC) at Cornell University Library. The Randall H. Greenlee menu collection accounts for nearly 500 menus. The menus in the Greenlee collection primarily date from the 1940s and 1950s and include restaurant, hotel, railroad, airline, and steamship menus from the U.S. and abroad. The Donald Ross menu collection, acquired in 2010, also has a wide variety of menus; these include country club dinners, charity balls, and business-sponsored gathering menus. Donald Ross began collecting menus in 1963. He collected 2472 menus during his frequent travels over a thirty-five-year period. Ross indexed each menu by hand in spiral notebooks and included the restaurant, location, month and year of his visit, and the type of menu in his detailed catalog. The third collection of menus belongs to the Cornell School of Hotel Administration Library (NestlÚ Library), it is housed in KRMC, and a small portion of the menus is available on the World Wide Web. This depository contains nearly 5000 fine dining and quick service menus, and the collection spans almost 80 years from 1920 to 1998. These collections demonstrate that KRMC houses a wide array of menus ranging from mode of transportation menus to quick service menus to menus of restaurants that specialized in recreating exotic places and experiences. The idea of glamour and exoticism permeates the collections.

Selling an "idea of place," an experience, and the idea that the "journey is half the fun" are the common threads that weave through the restaurant and modes of transportation menus in the collections under examination. The Shadows on Telegraph Hill menu (fig. 24) is an example of a restaurant that helped create a sense of place and an experience, and this menu is explored in greater detail later. The Shadows was a San Francisco restaurant located in a historic house and the menu invited patrons who dined there to become the protagonists of their own exciting adventure by allowing them to feel as if they were residents living in the glamorous Telegraph Hill neighborhood. As we shall see, the menu invites the reader to engage it as an experience and performance.

Figure 24:Shadows of Telegraph Hill Menu [ca. 1955], San Francisco, California, Randall H. Greenlee Menu Collection, box 3
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The Shadows menu depicts an artist's studio in Telegraph Hill, San Francisco. The interior of the menu includes a short history of the restaurant and the origins of the hill's name. During the Gold Rush in 1849, a semaphore signaled the arrival of clipper ships, that "telegraph" gave the hill its name. The Shadows restaurant was a historic and colorful old house, transformed into a restaurant that served cosmopolitan cuisine to match the cultural influences of San Francisco. The menu also doubled as a collectible postcard for patrons, it was intended as a souvenir, it could be folded and mailed. The menu was made from low-quality paper, but was designed to convey the architectural features of the building, the use of high contrasting colors drew the customer's attention. The Shadows' menu illustrates that restaurants are tourist destinations in and of themselves. The menu measurements are approximately 8" x 5" and the folded dimensions are about 5" x 3".

Kroch Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
Cornell University Library

Menus within the collections included luxury ship lines such as the French Line, the Holland-America Line, the Cunard Line, and the S.S. Bremen, as well as railroad and airlines companies which emphasized the unique experiences or amenities aboard their fleets. These transportation menus are important because they create a sense of place by tapping into the geographic imagination using vivid imagery, selling the journey as the true experience between destinations.

The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad train company menu employed a compelling illustration to showcase the beautiful scenery and majesty of California Zephyr passenger train. The illustration depicts the rolling landscape of Glenwood canyon and the sleek California Zephyr traveling alongside the Colorado River. As a key element of the experience is the "Vista-Dome," an observatory where travelers onboard the California Zephyr could view the sky or the mountains as the train traveled across the West. The promotion of "Vista-Dome" on the California Zephyr was a strategy to lure tourists to the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad company with the promise of beautiful scenery, unparalleled comfort, style, and a modern train with the latest features designed to enhance tourists' experience.

Similarly, airline menus utilized attractive graphics and the luxurious amenities available to their customers to promote their destinations. A menu from United Airlines advertising Honolulu, Hawaii was colorful and adorned with exotic flowers, Hawaiian natives, and beautiful beaches. The menu also emphasized the education, training, and experience of Frank Hurliman the chef who prepared the onboard meal, a fusion of French and American cuisines. Chef Hurliman's French culinary training emphasized the sumptuousness expected onboard a United Airlines flight. In addition to the meal, the menu included a three-dimensional diagram of the Mainliner Stratocruiser (the airplane), its compartments, amenities, and lounges available for patrons' use. This model sought to inspire feelings of luxurious comfort and well-being, while the lower deck "Hawaiian Lounge" was intended to extend relaxation and it was an introduction to the enjoyment found on the islands.

Among the diverse transportation companies that also created a sense of place, an experience, and emphasized the importance of the journey was the Great White Fleet, a luxury steamship company. Their menu series (fig. 25), which depicts documentary-style vignettes of everyday life in diverse countries of Central America and the Caribbean. The Great White Fleet menus promote the destinations as adventures and the bountiful products as available for consumption. The Great White Fleet menus draw upon patrons' sense that the journey is an experience in and of itself and the menus help shape that experience through their promotion of the people and products of Central America and the Caribbean.

Figure 25:Great White Fleet Ship Menus [ca. 1950], depiction of local landmarks and the daily lives of natives in Central America and the Caribbean. Randall H. Greenlee Menu Collection, box 4
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This is a collection of seven exemplars from the Great White Fleet Ship Company. Each menu (measures approximately 6" x 4") advertises Great White Fleet's Central American and Caribbean destinations, and depicts typical scenes or local landmarks in each of the countries. It is important to note the use of color in the images. The photographs were rendered in a variety of muted tones, while the main subjects have been highlighted in white. The use of white establishes a direct correlation between the trademark color of the company and subjects in the image. The use of photographs suggests the Great White Fleet's attempt to capture real life. By choosing to document locals engaged manual labor, traditional activities, and architectural landmarks, these menus seek to educate the travelers on local customs, economic activities, and buildings with historical significance.

Kroch Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
Cornell University Library

In order to explore these menus in depth, I will examine their historical context. The production of these menus corresponds with the World War II and post-World War II period, roughly 1940 through the 1950s. In the 1940s, the United States was recovering from the Great Depression and involved in World War II. In the post-war period, the United States witnessed economic growth, an expansion of the middle class, and improved prosperity for many people. These menus, in some sense, reflect the social position of the collector, clearly a person of some means to travel around the country and dine at such fine establishments. They are also a reflection of an expanding economy. Moreover, in the United States there was also a highly mobile population, increased government expenditures on infrastructure such as roads, telephone, and water systems, increased urban development, spending on education, and an expanding manufacturing sector (Farber 60). This, of course, was a promising development for roadside diners, movie theaters, and all forms of entertainment (Davies 27). It is in this context, that I seek to examine these collections of menus and explore how restaurants became such an important part of the cultural landscape.

Concurrent to and as a result of the economic expansion and increased prosperity of the post-war period was the cultural production of the period. Karal Ann Marling argues in her work on the visual culture of the 1950s that post-war prosperity, competition with the Communists, and increased buying power made the 1950s a period of mass production, social reinvention, and optimism. "Seeing is absolutely central to the meaning of the 1950s" (Marling 5). She argues that the 1950s television and advertising industries reduced the distance between social manners and personal intimacy. Television brought the public culture into the private home in a visual way (Marling 285-286). For our purposes, her arguments support the idea that dining out, while less common than it is today and therefore more special and elaborate, would have fit into this mold of seeing, being seen, blurring the lines between private and public, and reducing social distances.

By examining the menus through this cultural prism of economic prosperity and the rise of consumer culture, in which everyday items became symbols of status and self-worth, helps make the menus much more than reflections of visual culture. They are also reflections of social class. This is a period in which manufacturers and advertisers created a close association between one's possessions and what they "say" about us as individuals. Paradoxically, this association was only possible because mass production made sophisticated consumer culture a reality. The increased prosperity put more income in peoples' pockets and the mass production made housing, consumer items, and eating at restaurants more affordable. As a result of the prosperous times, dining out became a symbol of one's consumption power and made it possible to "escape" to the exotic restaurant down the street.

The rise of suburbia, like the entrance of television into the home, reflected the change in the culture in which more prosperity made a move to the suburbs and a house of one's own a possibility for many people. In 1947, William Levitt designed and built Levittown on Long Island. Marling argues that:

Levitt virtually invented the post-war suburb, built a new social construct there along with 17,400 cape cod-style, colonials, and ranch houses. His design became the norm. The modern technology that made affordable, assembly-line construction possible never asserted itself too blatantly in Levittown's exterior shutters and period roof lines, but [did so] in the open-plan interiors arranged around the kitchen, and the appliances acquired enormous visual prominence (Marling 253).

Since the houses all looked the same, the difference and "democratic" choice was to be found in the items with which people filled the house. This association between choice and consumption was due to manufacturers and advertisers' conscious efforts to make consumption and the ability to purchase refrigerators, washers, and cars uniquely American (Marling 261). These efforts and representations were used to contrast life in the free world and life in Soviet Russia. The houses also changed the way that consumers purchased durable goods. The new norm became integrated and matching items, with colorful and unique items, being "second-tier" appliances. Thus, consumption became inextricably linked with democracy and choice and paved the way for the development of contemporary consumer culture. Restaurants and their menus reflect the development of this consumer culture and illustrate how dining was not simply consumption, but designed as a total experience that encompassed the food and the built environment. As Dean MacCannell argues souvenirs are a type of marker collected by individuals and the souvenir helps shape the experience of site (MacCannell 41-42). Restaurants' clever marketing and patrons' desire for tangible reminders of their experiences, prompted the restaurateurs to elaborate their menus as souvenirs, as "...memories of the thing itself" (MacCannell 119).

In addition to the cultural production and origins of modern consumer culture, is America's role in the world and the visual shorthand used in several menus to signify the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa. A cursory examination of US newspaper political cartoons relating to US involvement in Latin America, Asia, and the Africa during the twentieth century reveals caricaturing of the "natives" along racial and patriarchal lines. For example, newspapers often depicted the natives in traditional garb, as people of color, and as youthful and disobedient. While the United States was often depicted as Uncle Sam, a tall, thin, older, and a white gentleman forced to deal with the misbehaving child in a forceful manner (Jacobson 148). These representations created, then, an easy way to characterize the "other." Several of the menus examined, use this visual shorthand to tap into the consumer's geographic imagination and help "transport" them to an exotic locale.

The means by which restaurants create a sense of place are varied; the most obvious is its physical, built environment. The structure can evoke and foster a sense of belonging for the patrons and the citizens of the locale, a restaurant can be a node and/or a landmark in a city. Paraphrasing Kevin Lynch in his book Image of the City, nodes are points or places a person can enter and are often the focus of travel. Landmarks, by contrast, can be understood as external reference points, these can be neon signs, sculptures, or buildings, (Lynch 47-48). Within this framework, restaurants can become both nodes and landmarks.

The archival research and evidence thus far suggests many restaurant menus emphasized the importance of the establishment within a larger geographic context, and the restaurants sought to portray themselves as important points of attraction in diverse cities and towns across the United States. The use of Lynch's landmark and node concepts here is not meant to suggest that the restaurants were necessarily considered by contemporaries to be important, but the concept is useful for analyzing the menus as projections within a particular local economy or as places of escape and "authentic" experience. As a geographical marker, then, a restaurant can become a beacon in a geographic area, it may seek to accomplish this either by the quality of the food, the atmosphere, reputation, or customer service.

Restaurants and restaurant menus also portray historical and cultural trends as well as the embedded social practices of the day. For example, some of the menus reveal the clearly gendered and racially charged portrayals of "the other." In one example, the menu displayed scantily clad, sexualized women, and portrayed these women as indigenous to the advertised locale (Trader Vic's, ca. 1950). Therefore, the key to reading the exotic women and the remote destination is in the frame of otherness. For example, many exotic menus represent local men as men of color, and in some cases, there is a suggestion of similarity of looks between these men and primates (Mono Bar, ca.1950), this can be best seen by understanding the notion of glamour in the 1950's:

...glamour was a series of constantly changing interactions between objects, people, and new technologies that produced arresting images and exciting new stories about oneself. So too is the high premium placed on the "exotic", the authentic, and the unfamiliar: hence the frequency of African-American motifs for notions of glamour that circulated among white Europeans and Americans throughout the twentieth century (Friedman 17).

Much like the vast literature on conquest, we can view these menus as extension of the exploration and colonization paradigm. Many of the menus examined in KRMC that depict an exotic destination, use the figure of a hero-protagonist at the center of action (Don The Beachcomber, ca. 1950). A middle-aged white male represents this hero in clear pursuit of leisure and pleasure; aboriginal women cater to and seduce the men, plenty of liquor is available, and beautiful, exotic landscapes complete the scene. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of the menus analyzed, highlight exotic places and tropical paradises. These remote destinations are placed in the context of the United States, a world power and a future consumer of these lands, suggesting that these were the next places to be conquered. The menus reflect the US patriarchal society, where the white male is at the center of power and women just like exotic lands are there to be discovered, as "virgin lands waiting to be penetrated, ploughed, and husbanded by male explorers," (Bassnett 231). Women and the land understood in the realm of the patriarchal concept were "...the objects of desire or destination points," (Bassnett 225).

The menus introduce patrons to an artificial world based on fantasy. The menu illustrations take places, people, and cultures out of their historical and geographic context and present these locations as consumer goods to be purchased. As Guy Debord discusses in his seminal work the Society of the Spectacle, the menus introduce a version of history that erases certain aspects and presents instead a neatly packaged ideal, where the artificial becomes more important than the real thing, and representation becomes the authentic experience, (Debord, 88). In the menu Don The Beachcomber, the Caribbean islands are illustrated in a stereotyped fashion, men and women are shown as traditional peasant-workers, while treasures and an embedded promise of escape await the visitor, (Don The Beachcomber, ca. 1950). In addition, these menus doubled as souvenirs, the restaurant's staff could mail the menu to any address the patron desired. The exaggerated and manufactured reality continues to be repeated in many of the menus, and no imagery of the true realities of these countries is to be found in any of the menus studied.

In the 1950's traveling abroad was a clear way to show social status and prosperity. And by the 1950's, boarding an airplane or a cruise became a more attainable reality for thousands of Americans as a result of economic prosperity. A series of menus from the Great White Fleet Ship Company (fig. 25) portrays some of their exotic destinations with photographs that seem to depict real-life activities. The destinations for the Great White Fleet were Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. It is important to note the emphasis the menus placed on real life by using pictures of local landmarks and focusing on the daily lives of the natives. The primitiveness, the lack of modern machinery, and manual labor captured in the Great White Fleet's (fig. 25) menus emphasize how different the natives were from everyday Americans. As Alice Friedman argues in, American Glamour and The Evolution of Modern Architecture, "Mobility, abundance, change-these were the things that Americans loved about themselves, and were delighted when they were reminded that they were the 'people of plenty' ." (Friedman 20). From this, is not surprising that the transportation company menus stressed mobility and the exotic destination. The map on the backside of the menus illustrates this perfectly. It depicts "Middle America" (today, one might call it Central America) and each of the countries features symbols for the agricultural products produced there. Costa Rica harvested such items as bananas, coffee, and cacao, while Colombia produced coconut, wheat, bananas, cacao, coffee, and hardwoods.

Scale, color, and elaborate illustrations in the menus all contribute to the glamour many of these restaurants exuded. Ren Clark's Polynesian Village menu (fig. 26) from the NestlÚ menu collection is simply beautiful. It measures approximately 11" x 17." It is large and intricate in its graphic design. Full-color illustrations of Polynesian natives, food, and symbols sweep across the pages and a vast array of exotic dishes weave throughout the menu. The restaurant was located in Fort Worth, Texas and epitomizes what Friedman describes as "glamour, magical storytelling, and objects that create compelling dream worlds, rich in possibility and rife with sensual pleasure," (Friedman 13). Judging from the menu, it is only natural to think that the actual restaurant establishment was full of fantasy, theatricality, and sensory stimuli that effectively transported diners to distant lands. The Polynesian Village menu helped shape patrons' geographical imagination of the Pacific Islands, by using such terms as "Polynesian natives", "Oriental delicacies", "tropical paradise", and Pacific Islands symbols to package a vague definition of the Islands and, by doing so, it limits the experience to the visual signs and built environment within the restaurant (MacCannell 149).

Figure 26:Ren Clark's Polynesian Village Menu [ca. 1960], Western Hills Hotel in Fort Worth, Texas, Nestle Library Menu Collection, box 3
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One of the most striking features of this menu is the size and vivid color of the pages. Measuring approximately 11" x 17", the menu is grand, attractive, and very enticing in its offerings. Clearly, such a sophisticated and exotic-looking menu sought to draw-in an upscale clientele, the extensive use of color, graphic layout, and exotic look makes the menu a desirable collectible. Although the restaurant advertised its Polynesian cuisine and served some Pacific Island-inspired dishes, the food and drink options were largely American, Chinese, and Japanese fare. This menu is a good example of the ways in which the geographical imagination was cultivated; it not only sells exotic food, but it also sells the promise of an exotic destination without having to leave the country.

Kroch Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
Cornell University Library

As we have seen, restaurants' ability to produce an alternate geographic imaginary was one way of luring consumers to dine at these restaurants. Another equally important strategy for attracting diners to restaurants were the efforts to place the client at the center of the experience. Following Friedman's arguments that glamour made the consumer the protagonist of his or her story, The Shadows of Telegraph Hill (ca. 1955) (fig. 24) menu illustrates the significance of being able to produce "exciting new stories about oneself," (Friedman 17). The Shadows was a restaurant in a historic house in San Francisco. The menu depicts two scenes; the first floor window shows a man and a woman sharing a drink and engaged in conversation. The second story window depicts a more intimate scene as a male artist paints a female model. Essential to reading the menu is the ability to write an "exciting story about oneself." The use of silhouetted figures makes it easy to imagine oneself as one of the people in these scenes. In addition to becoming a protagonist in these leisurely scenes, the menus were also collectible artifacts and souvenirs of travel to the city of San Francisco. One could fold the menu and the restaurant's staff would mail it to one's chosen destination. The meaning of sending the souvenir to a friend, acquaintance, or to one's home address fits within Marling's analysis of 1950s culture as deeply visual and as an act of seeing and being seen. The menu, moreover, reflected the social class, taste, and refinement of the traveler.

As pieces of material culture, menus provide an invaluable wealth of knowledge of the time and historical context in which they were produced and marketed. The menus from the KRMC collections help illustrate the larger cultural trends and reveal the texture of 1950s culture, the menus reveal how consumers experienced luxury and travel (figs. 24, 25, 26). Some of the menus examined doubled as postcards, were meticulously crafted, and conceived of as collectibles. As souvenirs, the menus served to shape the geographic imagination and the memories of the dining experience. The menus, like the restaurants, demonstrate the importance of visual artistry to attracting 1950s customers who were interested in seeing and being seen. Menus provide restaurants the ability to become landmarks in cities and towns. At the same time, the menus also frame issues of class, power, and gender. The television and its ability to bring far-off places into the private home also played a role in how these locations were portrayed in restaurant menus. More than selling food, menus reflected pertinent social issues, and helped reinforce ideals of exotic destinations around the world.


Secondary Sources:

Bassnett, Susan. "Travel writing and gender," in The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing. Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs, editors. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Davies, Colin. "Lessons at the Roadside." Architectural Research Quarterly 8 (2004): 27-37.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. London, United Kingdom: Rebel Press, n.d.

Farber, David. The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

Friedman, Alice T. American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000.

Lasansky, D. Medina and Brian McLaren, editors. Architecture and Tourism: Perception, Performance, and Place. Oxford: Berg Press, 2004.

Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Technology Press, 1960.

MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisurely Class. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. First published 1976 by Schocken Books Inc.

Marling, Karal Ann. As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

McMaster, Neil. Racism in Europe. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Pertinent WWW Resources:

Library of Congress American Memory Digital Collection., DC, Library of Congress

Menu Collections in the Conrad N. Hilton Library. Park, New York, The Culinary Institute of America.

New York Public Library Digital Library Collection. York, New York Public Library.

The NestlÚ Library Restaurant Menus Database., NY, Cornell University School of Hotel Administration

The Wolfsonian Collection. Beach, Florida International University.

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