coming eventsComing Events

September 6


September 13


September 18-19


September 20

Swann Galleries 

September 21


September 25


September 27


Find More Events in the FB&C Calendar

In the News

Exhibition Charts the Rise and Relevance of the Arts and Crafts Design Movement

Austin, TX — A detailed look at the history of the Arts and Crafts... read more

The Morgan Appoints Maria L. Fredericks as Head of the Thaw Conservation Center

New York —The Morgan Library & Museum announced today the appointment of Maria L.... read more

LOC Puts Papers of President Theodore Roosevelt Online

The largest collection of the papers of President Theodore Roosevelt, documenting his extraordinary career... read more

The 42nd Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair, Nov. 16-18

Boston - The annual fall gathering for booklovers, the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair... read more

1785 Engraving of Washington & Bob Dylan's Handwritten Lyrics at University Archives Auction

Westport, CT - A rare, 1785 hand-colored portrait engraving of George Washington, printed for... read more

HistoryMiami Museum Features Former National Geographic Photographer Nathan Benn

Miami - HistoryMiami Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate and a premier Miami cultural institution, presents... read more

Library of Congress Appoints New Chief of the Hispanic Division

The Library of Congress appointed Suzanne Schadl, academic expert in Latin American studies, as... read more

"Masters of Photography: 19th Century and Now" at Paris Photo in November

Paris - Iconic images by the earliest masters of photography—as well as contemporary artists... read more

Follow us on TwitterLike us on Facebook
Auction Guide
Advertise with Us
2015 Bookseller Resource Guide

Food Junk

The Wondrously Weird World of American Culinary Ephemera
By William Woys Weaver

mousever for larger view

Fishmonger trade card, 1890s.

Early drive-in menu, Austin, TX, 1939.

Metamorphic trade card, Cincinnati, 1894.

Graf Zeppelin menu, Rio to New York, 1930.

Elephants eating Baltimore oysters, 1880s.

Card from 1907 Jamestown Exposition.

The word ephemera is not new to collectors of printed materials, but its association with the term culinary is definitely a new twist. Perhaps it was inevitable that culinaria would gradually evolve into a distinct category, not only because it holds so much appeal for collectors, but because the study of food and the history of eating habits are quickly coming together as a specialized science in academe. Just as archeology needs artifacts for its interpretations of culture, so do food studies require more than cookbooks to understand the ever-changing role of food in human society. I’ve been considering the artifacts shown here for a book that will aim to set forth the “science” of culinary ephemera.

Collectors of culinary ephemera are already legion, although the market is highly fragmented into discrete groups. Some people collect menus. Others collect trade cards, pamphlet cookbooks, match covers, post cards, railroad ephemera, valentines, labels and stickers, wrappers and packaging, and even sheet music with food themes. When we consider just how pervasive food is in our daily lives—from the spatulas and salt shakers in the kitchen, to the chairs and tables where we eat, or the rows upon rows of packaged goods in most supermarkets—we can easily construct narratives about ourselves, our aspirations, our value judgments, even our foibles. While many people collect culinary ephemera for the nostalgia factor or eye appeal, I collect for the little stories these artifacts tell: a portrait of America constructed from its paper rubbish and hand-me-down mementos. Should you doubt the importance of culinary ephemera, just pull over to the side of the road sometime and take a look at how much our litter has to do with food.

I’ve been collecting culinary ephemera for a good 30 years, as a sideline to collecting culinary antiques, old cookbooks, and the heirloom seeds I wrote about in Heirloom Vegetable Gardening. I’ve always cultivated this holistic approach, because ephemera can provide critical documentation for objects, for important individuals in the history of food, and of course, for foods and dinners of the past. Though culinary ephemera remains relatively affordable, the age of 10-cent flea market bargains is behind us. Like rare old cookbooks, well-chosen representations of a specific genre have definite resale value and high appeal to research institutions looking to build up collections about food.

The most obvious area for collectors is menus. Many libraries, including the New York Public Library, have already assembled large and impressive collections. Some of the highest prices paid for culinary ephemera go for menus, although the mythology of what is desirable (as opposed to what is historically important) can be quite confusing. A menu autographed by Joe DiMaggio can fetch a huge sum at auction, but that price is not about the food and drinks at DiMaggio’s nightclub in San Francisco; it’s about an autograph, a baseball hero, and, of course, the association with Marilyn Monroe. In short, that menu is an icon for an era. An early menu from The Four Seasons in New York, or from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, would have far more historical value because of the culinary revolutions that emanated from those two restaurants. (But perhaps only readers of Patric Kuh’s The Last Days of Haute Cuisine would know that.)

Page 1 | 2 | Next
comments powered by Disqus