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Handpainted Menus

Hand painted luncheon menuThe best dressed tables of the early 1900s had linen napkins, elaborate centerpieces, and hand printed menus.  Decoration was the responsibility of the hostess, who turned her home into a tasteful refuge. 

These delicately painted and lettered menus were found among the belongings of Hattie Mack of Wilsey, Kansas.  She was one of five sisters, all teachers and several of them graduates of the Kansas State Normal School in Emporia.  The menus likely belonged to Margaret Mack, Hattie's eldest sister and the most accomplished member of the family.

Margaret taught at one-room schoolhouses in rural Kansas before enrolling at the State Normal School.  Such schools offered courses of study designed to train teachers.  The school's annual report for 1885 noted that most students matriculated with an average of over three years teaching experience:  "Many of them are poor, and are obliged to teach and attend school alternately, being unable to bear the expense of a continuous course."  Mack worked as the school librarian while enrolled, making $100 per year. 

After graduating from the elementary course in 1886, Mack returned to Wilsey as Principal for a year or two before moving on to the Newton schools and eventually rising to the level of Superintendent.  Mack's career reached its pinnacle in the early 1900s when she was hired by Kansas State University, then known as the Kansas Agricultural College, in Manhattan.  She received an annual salary of $500 (a substantial sum for a woman) to teach history and civics in the college's preparatory department.

The city of Manhattan was many times larger than the other towns in which Mack had lived and worked.  Art and culture thrived at the university under numerous clubs and associations, many of them literary societies (precursors to today's fraternities and sororities).  In addition to promoting the reading of literature and other cultural activities, these societies functioned as social clubs and hosted frequent banquets and luncheons.

Four-leaf clover menuThe Manhattan newspapers are filled with notices of literary society events, social club meetings, dances, and holiday parties.  On one November day in 1903, alone, the Manhattan Daily Mercury lists three such events--a Sunday School Hallowe'en luncheon, a Symphony Club meeting with refreshments, and the Tuesday Afternoon Club's social hour.  A few years later, the Manhattan Republic describes place cards painted in watercolors at a five-course luncheon marking the engagement of two young people. 

We may never know how Margaret Mack acquired these handmade menu cards, however, it probably was through teaching or volunteering.  She was active in the Presbyterian church and its missionary society, and also taught a Sunday School class.  Most of the cards feature spring flowers, and many menus list dishes of peas, tomatoes, and "summer" salads that would have been plentiful only at certain times of the year. Local church groups often provided sumptuous banquets for alumni gatherings at graduation, and it is possible that Mack's church contributed to these.  One of the cards is painted with a four-leaf clover, suggesting good luck at graduation or a St. Patrick's Day event.

Margaret Mack died in 1912 after a short illness.  Obituaries in the Manhattan and Wilsey newspapers noted her passing with expressions of grief and tributes.  Her colleagues lamented the loss of her genial spirit and dignified bearing.  And although they didn't mention it, she probably liked a good party, too.

These menu cards are in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.

Entry: Handpainted Menus

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2011

Date Modified: July 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.