Rip-Roarin Hospitality: Menus at Colorado College

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by Jessy Randall, Curator of Special Collections, Tutt Library, Colorado College

Like any Special Collections librarian, I am charged with preserving local history. The most difficult thing to preserve is, to my mind, also the most interesting: the undocumented nature of people’s everyday lives. How people dressed before photography, how people spoke before audio recordings, how people danced before video recordings. We have no technology to record taste, no way of knowing exactly what people ate, but restaurant and event menus can help us figure it out.

Colorado College has about 300 menus from the 19th and 20th centuries, plus an additional 200 or so from the 21st. (This is a modest collection by national standards: there are collections of thousands of menus at Cornell University, the City College of San Francisco, the New York Public Library, and elsewhere. The Denver Public Library also has a small menu collection.) The kernel of our collection, about two dozen late-19th-century Denver restaurant menus, was a gift to the library from the founder of Colorado College, Thomas Nelson Haskell. Later in his life, he served one term as Colorado State Librarian – perhaps his librarianish tendencies are what led him to collect ephemeral material such as restaurant menus.

But … why would anyone want to look at menus, academically speaking? What is “culinary history” and why should we care about it?

Perhaps you want to know what people were eating in the Pikes Peak area at the turn of the last century. The answer: larded beef, apparently – a dish that may not sound appealing to a modern ear, though probably would appeal to a modern palate. It’s beef injected with extra fat, so that the beef is artificially marbled and is therefore extra delicious. It’s a favorite menu item on late-19th and early-20th century event menus in Colorado. We have it listed on a menu for an 1898 banquet at the Alamo Hotel in Colorado Springs, and there it is again in 1926, being served at the Rotary Club’s Ladies’ Night at the Antlers Hotel. (It’s on several menus in between, too.)

You may be interested not only in what people ate, but in how they ate. You can get an idea of the etiquette of restaurant dining in a late-19th-century menu from the Boston Bakery in Denver, which includes a card stating: “We do not care whether your check is 5 cents or 5 dollars, you will be rightly treated and correctly waited upon … The waiters are instructed to be civil and polite to everyone, whether they are so to them or not, for even should the customer use bad manners, the waiter must not.” Other instructions to these waiters include: “Have no conversation with the customer, except what is strictly necessary” and “Place the orders down quietly; don’t slam them down.”

Looking at menus over time you can learn about different foods and foodways for men, women, and children. A 1960s menu from Gallaghers in Glenwood Springs, for example, offers a “Ladies’ ‘petite’ Club Steak” for $2.65, and makes “child’s portions” available for any menu item. We have seen children’s menu items or even special menus just for children from as early as the 1950s, and we also have menus from the Denver Woman’s Exchange and the Colorado Springs Business Woman’s Club.

Menus can speak volumes about the marketing of the Southwest and the West to tourists. The Wimpy Inn, a 1940s Colorado Springs restaurant, has Southwestern images on its menu: a cactus, a sombrero, a woven rug – but the menu shows no Southwestern influence, offering peanut butter sandwiches, pimento cheese, and waffles. In the 1950s, J.C. Chuckwagon Dinners in the Garden of the Gods offered “the very best in Western rip-roarin hospitality,” and found it appropriate to show a photograph of cowboys holding down a tourist and pretending to brand him.

For the past couple of years Colorado College has been building its collection of historical menus through local dealers and Ebay, and also building a current menu collection. Library employees pick up take-out menus at local eateries and stick ’em in my mailbox – it’s as simple as that. We began by eschewing chain restaurants, but decided this was wrong-headed, since Colorado Springs seems to have more fast food and other chains than the average town, and we don’t know of any other library collecting these menus. 

We preserve the menus in mylar “envelopes” and acid-free folders and boxes. Of course menus, by their very nature, may have unusual preservation problems: many of the menus are stained with food and drink, and our 1950s Navajo Hogan menu has a cigarette burn going straight through it.

To help researchers find our menus, we created a collection-level OCLC record (accession number 51626282) and a website with descriptions and images. We track hits on this site using a free service called Statcounter, and so we know that people all over the world are getting to our page via searches for particular restaurant names (both current and historical) and also for terms like “1950s diner menu” “sample 1980s menu” and “price cup coffee 1920.” We average about 15 hits a day.

And of course, the menu collection has already been used in ways we didn’t foresee. We have had a few in-house researchers use the collection: one undergraduate was interested in changes in views on health and nutrition over time, and another was interested in the history of regional foods. Additionally, the menus have been used for graphic design – their bold fonts and styles have come in handy for researchers looking for examples of graphic design from different time periods.

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