New York’s First Beefsteak Club May Date From 1700s

A Dual Tradition but Same Root?

A few more references in connection with my recent (starting July 2, 2017) New York beefsteak posts. In 1876, a detailed look at New York and English club life mentioned the English Beefsteak Club but no equivalent body in New York. The writer was Willian Conant Church, a well-known journalist who had founded a magazine, The Galaxy, with his brother.

The elegant menu of a Beefsteak Club in New York, venue unspecified, that I discussed recently is dated 1878. I would infer, therefore, that New York acquired a London-style club after Church’s article. It is possible the American Beefsteak Club existed before and Church did not know about it, but this seems rather doubtful to me.

The 1878 menu bears the golden gridiron image, long associated with some English steak clubs. Without going into their history in detail, suffice to say that the origins are prosaic. They are attested in 1709 by Edward Ward in his Secret History of London Clubs, see John Timbs’ 19th century club history. Ned Ward, as he was known – the same figure of porter history (the beer) –  stated the “imperial Phiz” offered a “broiled sliver off the juicy rump of a fat, well-fed bullock” with its well-appreciated beers.

Is it a stretch to link “sliver” with the small slices of beef characteristic of the typical American beefsteak dinner? Perhaps, but if the New York beefsteak tradition started in the 1700s, it is less of a stretch, i.e., when New York was a repository of influences from Albion for a considerable time.

In fact, there is some evidence that the New York beefsteak dinner goes back that far. In 1893, an article on clubs in the New York Times stated the “Beefsteak Club” was founded in the city “over a hundred years ago” at the Miller tavern, the locale of Anton William Miller I discussed earlier. Before Miller, it was owned by William Shannon, he was issued a license in 1854 as shown here on the website of the Museum of the City of New York. The handwriting is a little hard to read, the last digit of the date might be 7 or another number, but it was clearly in the 1850s. Billy Miller, who worked for Shannon after immigrating from Germany, became owner some time after.

We can infer from the Times that a tavern was operating at the site – 54 Market Street – much earlier. The handwriting again is a bit confounding, but 54 as civic number appears correct. It is kitty-corner to Monroe Street, which accords with other published accounts.

The story of the original 13 members recounted in the Times story, reflecting the original 13 colonies, can be found in other lore of the New York Beefsteak Clubs. But it does suggest creation of the club before the 1800s, perhaps 1780s. That is not that long after founding of the first Beefsteak Club in London. One of the thirteen’s fathers could have been a member …

By the late 1800s, the last club in London connecte to the Beefsteak tradition was a more elite affair. Its spawn, including I think the club of the 1878 New York menu and, for example, the Melbourne club profiled in this 1889 Melbourne Punch story, were parallel to a more popular tradition that nonetheless had its likely origin in the same source.

I should add that Washington, D.C.’s famed Gridiron Club, the prestigious journalists’ club, is a more distant representative of the haute tradition. Its same golden gridiron symbol prevailed for some of England’s Beefsteak clubs. The same is true of the “Grid”, the famed Oxford dining society which started up not long before the Washington, D.C. institution (1880s).

These latter two never specifically bruited the beefsteak as their symbol, or beer as their defining drink. But they broadly are in the same group, composed of the upper strata or chattering classes of society versus the solid citizen – businessman, mechanic, professional – who typically attended New York beefsteaks c. 1900.

Would you like to see where Billy Miller’s tavern was in Manhattan? See below. It was 54 Market Street, near Monroe St., the address still exists. But the building you see was erected in 1910. So it’s not the same structure, but perhaps gives you an idea of the original atmosphere, factoring changes in New York’s social make-up.