Posted in 1930s, 1940s, Atlantic City books, Food, Historical fiction, Writing

The perils of pinning down every historical detail

While every good historical writer obviously needs to do a lot of research and get as many facts as possible right, there are inevitably times where we can’t find any information, the known existing information is scarce and sketchy, or it’s so difficult and time-consuming to locate information that it’s not really worth the effort. When that happens, we need to weigh the need for historical accuracy against how likely it is anyone will actually notice or care if some details aren’t 100% correct.

One of those scenarios is what was on the menu at real restaurants.

I’ve spent the past week working on my World’s Fair chapter in the book formerly known as The Very Last, and part of my research includes finding out what was served at the restaurants. I found several great New York Times articles in the archives (which I can search for free through my local library), along with the information at this awesome repository and some other sources.

However, one thing I didn’t count on was that some of those restaurants didn’t exist during the Fair’s second season in 1940, since almost a dozen foreign pavilions in the Government Zone were closed due to WWII. Other restaurants offered different menu items in 1940.

Above is the original menu of the Iraqi café, which sounds totally awesome, but which wasn’t the same during the second season. After I wrote a scene of Cinni and some of her friends having lunch there during their first day at the Fair, I discovered the café expanded to a full restaurant and added savoury Middle Eastern food. I can’t discount the possibility that they still offered those sweet date-based dishes, but that was no longer the entirety of their menu in 1940.

Historical menus absolutely can be found if you know where to look. Some major restaurants will mention the evolution of their menu and food offerings over the years in the history section of their websites. The New York Public Library has a huge free online treasure trove of archived menus. I’ve found numerous websites and serious blog posts about Brooklyn’s sadly closed Gage and Tollner restaurant (which was kind of like Delmonico’s).

But sometimes, it’s just too time-consuming and difficult, or even downright impossible, to track down certain details. Yeah, I could fly up to NYC and spend a few days looking through archives, or pay an archivist or librarian to do the research for me and send me the relevant information. But is that really worth the effort when the World’s Fair only occupies a single chapter? It’s not like the entire book or an entire part of the book is about the Fair!

In the absence of 100% proof, we should err on the side of plausibility. E.g., a seafood restaurant probably wouldn’t serve hamburgers. Vegetarian and vegan options just weren’t a thing until fairly recently. A French café wouldn’t offer Thai food.

Using a fictional restaurant eliminates the possibility of inadvertent error entirely.

Plus, how many people are going to notice or care if you include a menu item that may not have really been available on that date at that restaurant? I highly doubt that’ll pull anyone normal out of the story like a blatant anachronism would. You shouldn’t stress over a tiny detail that’s not important to the overall book. All that matters is doing the best you could with the information available.

Another little detail you may not always be able to find is makeup colours. There are plenty of vintage makeup ads to be found, and vintage beauty bloggers, but not all makeup comes from major name brands. Many makeup companies also like to give their colours creative names, beyond simple designators like red, pink, and green.

Also, makeup colours were a lot more conservative decades ago. The kind of lipsticks I like to wear (black, dark blue, dark green, purple) didn’t exist, and while nailpolish had a somewhat larger range, it also generally didn’t include colours like black, orange, and purple.

Do you notice or care if a few minor historical details aren’t 100% accurate? Do you appreciate an author’s note explaining the reasons for such decisions?


Writer of historical fiction sagas and series, with elements of women's fiction, romance, and Bildungsroman. Born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

6 thoughts on “The perils of pinning down every historical detail

    1. If our hypothetical reader were the age of Cinni and friends – they would be very likely to remember.

      Particularly if the experience was rare and the restaurant was unique [eg: a World’s Fair situation].

      And then there are people who notice the spelling; grammar and punctuation in historical menus.

      [indeed in current ones]

      They don’t go and pass them off as quirkiness.


  1. I do appreciate Author’s Notes explaining the decisions and why they were made.

    Another point would be paint colours and what was going in to make that paint.

    People only knew about lead and abstetos and the damage they created quite recently – within the last 120 years.

    And BPAs were very recent as well.

    Good point about making up restaurants.

    No – a French cafe wouldn’t offer Thai food – unless it had some Indochinese elements or the Thai cafe derived its chefs from France.

    [Wasn’t Thailand one of the only Asian nations NOT to be colonised by England; France; Spain or the Netherlands?]

    It would also be cool to read about why the chefs made the suggestions they did [for example: on the smorgasbord] – was it popular or personal taste? How far back were they going?

    Orange and purple nail polish seem to have first been around in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

    And then I think of what people put in their hair.

    And men and earrings.

    I’d like to know more about Newburgh lobsters. A place? A style?

    But a hamburger store would sell fishburgers, yes?

    Getting things like relative prices right would be really important – and some of them are fairly easily checkable.

    And how menus seemed to be supersized in the early 2000s [2002-05 was especially bad for this – I noticed this a lot when going to a mall].


  2. Thanks. Would never, could never go to or write vabout the Fair – another country, twice over.
    Loved the link, tested at once – and inspired now to spend time with some WWII and austerity records from my family – food they nwere buying,, meals cooked.
    Including a reminder that in post war UK, Spam was a covted luxury…
    Sadly, no make up listed in these grocery and cooking records.


    1. Esther:

      The Fair is indeed another country.

      [I do know that Worlds’ Fairs are held today – before the current pandemic].

      The closest I came to it was the Expo in Brisbane in 1988.

      My favourite memory of the Expo was the platypus on the telephone book.

      [Now THOSE are becoming – quite dead – though Yellow and White Pages are still sent – and they are in suburbs/regions].

      There have been several trade fairs both professionally and personally.

      Wait until you read about the efforts that they got other states to try to participate – it had meant to be a national Australian event for and around the Bicentennial.

      Yes – Spam was a coveted luxury – and was corned beef very expensive back then?

      Austerity was all the way until 1956 – at least the food ration part of it.

      And it is a bit of a shame about the make-up – though your family may well have considered it shameful in the first place.

      Any moisturisers and concealers and that type of skincare in there?

      Would they have recorded the prices over the week and the month?

      [Accounting and bookkeeping and BUDGETING – they are studies in themselves].

      There was a great piece from Australian author Anson Cameron about funerals and housekeeping which mentioned a wartime or post-wartime expert.

      If you are wishing to search it look for “Dearly departed we are here for the canapes”.

      In “Here for the canapes” Cameron had mentioned MRS BRIXTON’S GUIDE TO BEREAVEMENT:

      “In Mrs. Brixton’s Household Guide to Bereavement the author writes that, “A person attending too many funerals will develop a reputation as an idler seeking free cheese”. She is right about so much. Can’t we all cite a mystery guest wearing a sportscoat in which terriers have recently whelped turning up at our father’s wake claiming a shared skerrick of boyhood with him before scarfing down the lion’s share of the sushi and single malt? There was a bloke at my dad’s funeral who kept telling me, with what seemed like real sorrow, “Robbo’ll be missed.” Perhaps. But my father’s name was Graeme.

      Mrs. Brixton suggests four funerals a year is about the right number to attend, “unless the Germans have started another war, in which case, needs must. But one should guard against giving the impression of being unemployed, surviving on canapes at wakes,” she advises.”

      [yours truly has attended 2 funerals this year – one in June and one in September]

      It makes you wonder – “Well, what else was under the table?”


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