Postcard-menu combinations by John Sayers

Not only is John Sayers giving his collection to the Bodleian Library, but each tranche of his donation is accompanied by articles on specific types of ephemera or individual items. His notes on menus attached to postcards provide fascinating insights into a little-known genre of ephemera.

Dinner menu 2nd class. White Star Line Steamer Baltic, Aug 22, 1910
Dinner menu 2nd class. White Star Line Steamer Baltic, Aug 22, 1910

It is relatively easy to find menu postcards from shipping lines – a brilliant marketing concept in which the traveler is given a menu and on the back is the address side of a postcard. On ships, these were generally for the lower classes of passengers.

If you travelled on the Baltic of the White Star Line on August 22, 1910 (PM80A) your Second Class Dinner Menu would offer you the challenge of making decisions regarding Kidney Soup; Hake with Parsley Sauce; Beefsteak Pie; or Roast Mutton. To the collector with a developed sense of culinary delights, the offerings in this menu may not be very impressive. No caviar. No smoked salmon. No lobster. No elegant pâté. And no hint of foie gras.

Those highlights certainly appeared on menus of those travelling in First (a.k.a. Saloon or Cabin) Class. However, to put the situation into context, if you were migrating to North America from crop failures in Europe, potato famine in Ireland, or subsistence living in a large British city, these menus would seem like a king’s feast.

The back of this card carries the announcement that “The Largest Steamers in the World” are being built, and refers specifically to Olympic and Titanic “Each 45,000 tons”. Yes there was room for a brief message, but the primary objective was to promote the line and its services, while presenting the menu for the meal.

Norddeutscher Lloyd, Bremen
Norddeutscher Lloyd  Bremen

For several years I was attracted at postcard shows by beautiful artist-drawn cards of the North German Lloyd shipping line (PM80B) and the Red Star Line, with the name of a ship and a date in the early 1900s. Being an ocean liner collector I bought them, but couldn’t solve the puzzle of why the shipping line would have put a date on them. The name of the ship – yes. The date that the card was obtained – no, why would they do that?

The problem was solved after many years when my wife, Judith, and I found three postcards with menus attached below them at a vintage paper display at the vast antiques fair in Brimfield, Massachusetts. These were from the Red Star Line, a creator of some beautiful cards a century ago. At the top – a detachable postcard. Below – the menu for a meal on a particular date on board the ship.

With this format, the two worlds came together. Since then we have found more menu/postcard combinations of the Red Star Line, plus White Star, Cunard, North German Lloyd, NYK, and some minor lines. These are not common. When one has found only some 70 examples in 40 years of collecting, while searching at fairs in Canada, the U.S.A. and the U.K., it is reasonable to say that they are scarce

For the shipping collector, the synergies are blatantly obvious. But why collect these as a postcard collector? First, they represent the way that the postcards first appeared – attached to a menu. Second, they establish the place where the postcards were acquired – a dining room on a particular date on a specific ship. How many postcards (artist-drawn, shipping, or otherwise) provide this type of provenance unless they have been posted and have a clear cancellation?

S.S. Point Bonita, Christmas dinner menu, 1920
S.S. Point Bonita, Christmas dinner menu, 1920

Finally, and in many ways the most important feature, the combination shows that the postcard alone is in some cases missing a significant part of the artwork’s image. The most extreme example is a 1920 Xmas Dinner card and menu of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company (PM80C).

When you look at the illustration, you can see that having the postcard alone would tell only part of the artist’s story. The beautiful garden would be cut off, the lower Geisha girl would be chopped in half, and the balance of the picture – the entire effect of the garden trailing into the shipping line logo – would be missing. Who would want an artist-drawn card with a piece of the artwork missing?

For the ephemera enthusiast, these have the delight of carrying the menu for a meal on board ship, with the specificity of the date and the name of the ship, and in many instances excellent artwork, signed in many cases by the artist such as Cassiers working for the Red Star Line and Tivo for the North German Lloyd.

Of course, you wouldn’t know that you were missing part of the image. If you weren’t alerted before you read this report, you now know to scrutinize postcards for: (i) the name of the ship and a date printed in black; (ii) an image that seems to have been cut off (i.e. it looks like it might bleed beyond the lower edge of the card); and (iii) the lower edge of the card is not clean-cut (these cards were generally perforated or otherwise scored, and detaching them would not have left a clean edge). You may also find that the card is smaller than the normal card size, where the perforations did not hit the right place on the initial sheet.

We haven’t found many of these at postcard shows. Our experience shows that you are much more likely to find them at an ephemera fair, categorized under ‘Menus’. It makes some sense, because a postcard dealer offers postcard collections, generally coming from an estate. His or her protective sleeves and display boxes are designed for the dimensions of postcards, and these postcard/menu combinations do not fit into a conventional postcard display.

A first-cousin, as it were, to these postcard/menu combinations is a full-page menu designed so that it can be folded in three panels with space on the back for an addressee on one panel, and room for a brief letter on the other panels. This format is represented in the President Jackson and President Wilson examples in PM 78 and PM79. There are other examples elsewhere in the Collection, notably in the menus of the NYK Line of Japan, contained in that section.

This style of menu and message combination appears to be confined to the Pacific Ocean passenger liner fleets of both Japan and the United States. As with the postcard variety, the objectives of the shipping line were to facilitate the passenger sending messages about his or her trip, to give those passengers an activity for their spare time during the long voyage, and most importantly to promote the shipping line and whet the recipients’ appetites for ocean travel.

These postcard and letter card variants might not appeal to a narrowly-focused postcard collector. That postcard collector would face the prospect of having to acquire A4 or 8 ½ x 11-inch acid-free sleeves and put these trophies in a separate 3-ring binder as Menu Cards, or merge them in the same type of sleeve in the body of a Menu collection. From personal experience, postcard/menu combinations in a dedicated binder could be fairly sparse for the first 20 or so years!


John Sayers

November, 2015