…on my way to look for material for a history of BBQ post (for Jubilee's Outlaw BBQ), I came across and couldn't resist this wonderful collection of menus and notes on their history from the UNLV Libraries distracted me from via a post on More or Less Bunk (history blog with a food history category), which comes, in turn, from the Scout Report (not food but a weekly report on best new internet resources, truly an information junkie's delight). That may be more provenance than anyone reading cares about, but all are resources worth looking at more closely.
Menus provide a wealth of information beyond their purely aesthetic value and are a particularly rich resource for aspects of cultural and social history. They give us information on the most popular cuisine of a time period and region and are evidence of changing culinary tastes. They can indicate how particular food items have been used regionally, and in the case of notable restaurants can provide evidence of the work of well-known chefs.
Design-wise they are examples of the graphic design elements illustrative of a particular historical time period. For students of menu design they can serve as examples of graphic design, placement and layout. Last but not least, they have a purely nostalgic value for those persons who have visited a particular restaurant or hotel and want to re-live that experience by reading through the menu.
It was of course in Paris that the physical menu has it earliest development in Europe. Spang notes in her work The Invention of the Restaurant that the physical design of menus in Paris changed throughout the nineteenth century and generally followed the typographical innovations of the period. From a single large page with lots of closely-packed type in the early part of the nineteenth century (much like a newspaper), it transformed into a leather covered booklet held together with a silken cord in mid-century, and then reverted back to a single sheet design with illustrations.
It should be noted that in Paris, the physical menu was often referred to as the carte(the French word for map),and in other places it was referred to as the "bill of fare" according to contemporary literature and restaurant reviews. Notwithstanding the physical construction of these items, the culinary vocabulary of these menus was often a challenge even for those that spoke French.
Menus: The Art of Dining | UNLV Libraries Digital Collections. Issues of are also available.