The Essence of Entertaining – Mrs. Arabella Huntington’s Tablescapes

Includes: The Gilded Age “Huntington Dinner” Menu of 1892

by Nancy Armitage

Wow, is all I can say! I was up late last night researching Mrs. Arabella Huntington plateware & did I find a gold mine. For a researcher, new information is always exciting to find. I found an old advertisement from the Los Angeles Times, dated November 27, 1949. It was titled, “The Series of Auctions on December 1st, 2nd, & 3rd, 1949, Items from Arabella Huntington Collection. Arabella had died in 1924, Henry E. Huntington died in 1927, & Archer Huntington died in 1955. So two decades after she died, they were still trying to sell all her pretty things, even the Steinway piano which they used in the Large Library in Mr. and Mrs. Henry E. Huntington’s (and Arabella’s) Mansion at the San Marino Ranch.

Gilded Age plateware often was gold & white with very fancy filigree work on the rim of the plates. Often, these dinner ornate plates were made of 22k gold. The charger platter on the bottom is 12″, a 10″ dinner or entrée plate on top of charger, & 8″ salad plate on top of that.

Curtis Taylor Gallery & Library in Pasadena, CA sells some of Arabella Huntington Collection (1949)

So this Arabella Huntington Collection was to be exhibited in a gallery space at Curtis Taylor Gallery & Library on Raymond Ave. in Pasadena, CA on a weekend in November. Then, items to be sold (Cash only) at public auction sale in December of 1949. These items (sadly not detailed) were French furniture Louis XV tables & desks, & Louis XV Kingwood Desk. Also, notable paintings some from Gainsborough, Hoppner, Copley, & Reynolds, Whistler & etching by Zorn. Plateware titled: Chinese, English, & European Porcelains & Georgian Silver & Sheffield silver pieces, also Quality Persian & Chinese Carpets.

The Whistler painting & Zorn etching surprised me, I didn’t know the Huntingtons collected them. I love these two painters, Whistler & Zorn oils & watercolor paintings are amazingly spontanous & fresh. They both were so talented & painted such superb “in the moment” portrait paintings. I saw a Ander Zorn exhibition in San Francisco a couple years ago (2014) at the De Young Museum. Zorn painted beautiful portraits, landscapes, & nudes; Zorn often did a scribbly but beautiful sketch/etching of a person before he painted them. Zorn painted so many interesting people: Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice (1894), Wm. B. Ogden (1895), US President Wm. Howard Taft, Victor Hugo, & Sculptor: Auguste Rodin (1906) to name just a few. Could the “Zorn etching” have been Mrs. Huntington’s portrait??

I always wondered if Mrs. Huntington got her portrait painted by Sargeant or Zorn. She could have possibly met Sargeant; because her son, Archer Huntington & Sargeant were both members of National Arts Club (NYC). I read somewhere that 4 portraits of Mrs. Arabella Huntington were hung at the Nob Hill Mansion in San Francisco; only one survived the Great SF EQ/Fire of 1906 that was leveled – CP and Arabella Huntington Mansion at 1020 California Street, San Francisco, CA. The “survivor” painting is the large portrait of Arabella Worsham Huntington (1882) by French painter Alexandre Cabanel was saved by her loyal servant staff. BTW, technically Arabella was Mrs. C.P. Huntington until 1884.This painting used to be located at Fine Art Museum of San Francisco/De Young now (2020) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Arabella Worsham (Huntington) had her full length portrait painted in Paris in 1882. It was painted by famous French painter Alexandre Cabanel who also painted Napoleon III circa 1865. This original Arabella Huntington portrait hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art but for years was at Fine Arts Musuem at San Francisco, CA gift of Archer M. Huntington.

Mrs. Arabella Huntington was an adventurous traveler taking annual trips on a steamship to Europe. She loved entertaining in her various Huntington mansions in California (SF & LA) & New York(NYC & Throggs Neck estate) & Paris. It shows how much she appreciated other cultures just in this little collection of plates & silver pieces. We know her “entertainments” were often themed parties. There is so many different cultures represented in her plate ware collections: Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Russian, Royal Vienna made in Austria, German, England, & Dutch (The Netherlands).

This vessel was made by Worchester Co. in England. These elegant motifs of gold filagee, pink roses, passionflower, birds & landscapes are typical of Mrs. Huntington’s style of plateware. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage at the Huntington Library (Arabella Huntington Collection) 2nd floor.

Plateware was under “Chinese, English, & European Porcelains” plateware at Mrs. Arabella Huntington Collection auction (1949):

From the Royal Collection in Russia – a pair of Black Hawthorn Imperial Temple Jars of the K’ang Hsi Period.

The Crossett Family Chamberlains Worcester Dinner service of 120 pieces in the Imari Taste [Japanese],

This is an example of “Capodimonte” Italian armorial plateware made in Naples, Italy; on the back of the plate it says “Au Roi de Rome, Naples 1811” with a “N” & a crown over the N. We know that Collis & Arabella went to Italy in the 1890’s; we know Mr. & Mrs. H. E. Huntington also traveled to Italy in 1914 probably more visits too; they could have gone to Naples or Rome or both & picked up their Capodimonte plates. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage

Capo di Monte Italian Plateware [Italian plateware like Della Robbia wreath porcelain) heavy gold work with people dancing & singing around the rim of the plate, the rim is sculptural with people in Roman robes.

Meissen Plateware [could be bright flowers like Chelsea plateware or Transferware Blue “onion skin”],

Meissen plateware made in Germany “Onion skin”, possible pattern of Mrs. Arabella Huntingtons. Meissen fine china was very revered in England, In the 1930’s, Queen Elizabeth received a chocolate pot of this plateware.

Dresden Plateware, [colorful with bright pink, magenta, orange flowers, & gold laurel wreath floating.] Dresden other patterns: “Empress”, “Chateau” or very fancy “Marie Antoinette” (with large initials “MA”) patterns. In the H. E. Huntington’s Chateau Beauregard by Paris, it appears she might have had all those patterns; at least 4 sets of Dresden plateware sets. Some of her Dresden tea sets & plate ware came from her purchase of 1907 Rudolph Kann Paris estate sale [which Mrs. Arabella Huntington bought a portion.]

Pretty Dresden flowery plateware in the “Empress” pattern. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage
Coalport English porcelain plate in yellow & white & gold beaded scallop edge. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage

Coalport English Plateware, [could be yellow “Batwing” or blue “Batwing” or a solid band of navy blue on the rim with gold work] below.

Coalport plateware made by Tiffany & Co. possible patterns of Mrs. Arabella Huntington; Colors: ornate blue, white, & gold; or gold & white. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage

Minton English Plateware [made by Tiffany & Co.] Plateware, [very ornate fancy gold work on top of a band of color on thick rim; possible colors: gold & white, red & gold, green & gold, turquoise blue & gold, cobalt blue or French ultramarine blue and gold]. Remember Mrs. Huntington could have purchased all of those colors….plateware was quite a addiction for Mrs. Arabella Huntington and she had the money.

This plate is Crown Derby with an ornate gold & white rim with fancy scallops & birds; with a sentimental scene of father & son in the landscape in the middle.

Crown Derby English plateware with fancy gold filigree pattern (above ); free flowing flowers with embossing work on the rim (below) also called “Royal Crown Derby”.

This is also Crown Derby plateware with flowers & a embossing filigree on the rim of plate and a gold edge. Either one of these Crown Derby patterns (above photos) could be Mrs. Arabella Huntingtons.

Delft Dutch plateware [Blue & white scenes of people or landscapes],

This is Dutch Delftware from Holland, always in “Dutch Blue” (gorgeous French ultramarine blue color). The Huntingtons probably traveled to Amsterdam in Holland to see the Rijksmuseum and other museums.

Royal Vienna Plateware [Very ornate fancy plates with lots of gold, with scenes of people in the middle],

Rockingham English Plateware [fancy flowered plates like Meissen & Chelsea plateware or Blue Transferware].

The Arabella Huntington Collection ad continues with “Place Plates [plate setting chargers [?], Dessert Services, etc., A collection of 50 decorated [tea] cups & saucers, & also, included Chinese Red Lacquer Breakfast set”.

We know Arabella Huntington had “Coalport bouillon cups & saucers in blue, gold, & white” at the San Marino Ranch. Photo Credit & Illustrated by Nancy Armitage Above: Coalport footed Bouillon cup (2 handles) & saucer in blue, gold, & white. Minton gold & white – 1923. Minton blue & gold with rust dinner service. Possible patterns of Mrs. Arabella Huntington.

Another category of this Arabella Huntington Collection Sale (1949) was “Important Georgian Silver & Sheffield”: Set of 4 George III silver covered dishes with warmers, 4 George III silver candlesticks., XVIII century English Sheffield Trays, Silver Tea Service, Silver Wine Coolers, Silver Candelabra Sheffield Cruet, 150 piece Sterling Silver set of flatware by Caldwell [Gorham] J. E. Caldwell & Co. a fancy pattern, could be ornate “Floral Repousse” or one with scallop motif on the end called “English King” – Edwardian], – Silver Pieces by Tiffany & Co.- other silver pieces & plates, English Crystal [Glasses] Tableware, Venetian Glass Chandeliers, Crystal Lighting fixtures, Lamps, Overlays, [?]. etc.

Ornate silver tea set includes teapot, coffeepot, creamer, sugar & water pitcher with tray.

I thought this was humorous – at the bottom of the ad for Arabella Huntington Collection states: “Terms: CASH, sales conducted in an intelligent & polite manner by Taylor Curtis Telephone SYcamore 38151 (old San Marino/Pasadena phone number), Smoking not allowed in galleries & “ladies may attend”.

Dresden porcelain plateware: “Marie Antionette” pattern teapot, teacups, & saucers.

Some of these items on these lists I recognize from the Huntington’s San Marino Ranch inventory book , but others I don’t. Which means some of the pieces could have been in storage for the San Marino Ranch; or possibly items from other Huntington Mansions at No. 2 57th St. NYC & maybe Huntington Estate “Homestead” at Thogg’s Neck, Westchester Co., NY.

Dresden porcelain demitasse set for hot French chocolate or espresso coffee. The latter was usually offered by the host and hostess to her quests after a fancy banquet in the Drawing Room.

We see the Huntington story often in black & white on our ipads & in books. All the Huntington documents are in Black & White: photos of all their mansions, black & white typed letters, & personal documents. In reality, the Huntingtons multi-faceted tale was oh, so very colorful! The red velvet Louis XV chairs (like claret wine) & green damask fabric. The brightness of French Boucher paintings, the French & English colorful flowery plateware they used to entertain. The colors of their elaborate exotic flowers & premium roses and exotic fruit in their conservatories, hothouses, & gardens. Even their menus were colorful, painted by Tiffany himself of Tiffany & Co. If I achieve anything in this blog, I want to show the Huntington’s lives in color not in black & white.

So what did the Huntingtons & their guests eat on this beautiful plateware described above. Here is one of the famous annual multi-course dinner banquet dinner at Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Hosted by Collis P. Huntington’s It was called “The Huntington Dinner” catered by Delmonico’s. Delmonico famous NYC. Delmonico Restaurant usually used French Limoges plates (gold & white) with gold medallion in the center.

“The Huntington Dinner” of 1892 Palace Hotel, San Francisco, Calif.

Spectacular Spread at the Palace Hotel – Annual Banquet for the Central Pacific Railroad & Southern Pacific Railroads

In 1892, Collis P. Huntington, was the President of Southern Pacific & Central Pacific Railroad Companies. He hosted the grandest of all of his annual banquets in San Francisco; since the early 1880s, these annual banquets were located at the Palace Hotel. In the 1890’s, Collis & Arabella Huntington actually hosted these annual banquets at their mansion on Nob Hill. Sometimes, 110 dinner guests were fed a 12 to 16 multi-course meal in their Ballroom/Picture Salon.

Though New York City was the center of Huntington’s business interests, he also had a West Coast headquarters in San Francisco for Southern Pacific Co. The Southern Pacific Co. was located on Montgomery Street directly across the street from the sophisticated & glamorous Palace Hotel. His concept for these gatherings was to meet his top employees; the businessmen in whose abilities Huntington’s interests rested. During these gatherings, Huntington was accessible to all of his employees.

In the late 1890’s in American High Society, it was unusual for someone of Huntington’s class to mingle with employees as freely as he did during these gatherings. C. P. Huntington made no distinction between family, political affiliates, or employees in his lavish entertaining. All guests were equal & they spared no expense for the lavish black tie affairs. Huntington believed & praised the American values of hard work & a job well done. In the 1840’s, he himself started his career as a hardware merchant who sold tools to California gold miners. His work ethic is what helped him build his fortune. Huntington considered entertaining his employees on a grand scale, a privilege. For Huntington, these banquets were an expression of gratitude for his employee’s loyalty, dedication, & hard work.          

When this Southern Pacific Co. railroad banquets were held at the Palace Hotel, Mr. Collis P. Huntington was the the President. He used his favorite caterers, Victoire & Prosper Reiter from uptown Delmonicos in New York City. The grandest of all of these dinners, was held on April 23, 1892. This dinner called “The Huntington Dinner” was documented in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper in a lengthy article that described both the food & Mr. Huntington’s motivational speech. 

The famous New York Delmonico’s Restaurant (located also in San Francisco) catered the affair. Only this kind of upscale restaurant could have handled this event. If one calculates 100 guests with eight wines & champagne glasses per guest, an astounding figure of 800 stemware glasses were used just for this one meal. Also, 100 guests eating 16 courses, they would have used 1,600 dishes for the evening. This is not including the finger bowls & bread & butter plates. 

In the Gilded age, the Huntington’s often used Limoges Oyster plates for the first course: “Oysters on the Half Shell”. They were able to fit 5 raw oysters & some Mignonette sauce in the middle with lemon wedges also. The oysters were usually served with Mignonette sauce, made with white champagne vinegar and shallots. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage

This elaborate meal was described, as “the Huntington Dinner” by the San Francisco Examiner newspaper. It was a 12-course extravaganza beginning with California oysters on the Half Shell served on special fine Limoges oyster plates. This first course was served with a Chablis white wine. A Consommé des Sportsmen usually with served with Jerezquo (a Spanish sherry). During that time period, it was common to have hors d’oeuvres served after the soup course & before the fish course. “Savories” were  listed alongside, Cromesques of Liver with Truffles – a type of liver mousse probably served with water crackers accompanied with a White Sauterne wine. The fourth dinner course, a Brook Trout a la Arc en Ciel was served with Potatoes a la Parisienne. Claret wine was poured with this course. Claret is a Victorian red wine, similar to French Bordeaux

The elaborate dinner included a multitude of entrees, they served Burgundy Wine; with Braised Capons a la Ambassadrice. Capons, a small chicken was usually served with a Mushroom Sauce. Cassoulet of Frogs a la Presidente was the next course. Considering Mr. Huntington was the President of both the SPRR & CPRR, frog legs must have been a special treat for him, & the course was even named in his honor. Spring Lamb a la Nancy (Roasted lamb was a favorite of the Huntington Family, also.)  

In the middle of most high society meals, at the midpoint of the elaborate meal there was a pause. This banquet pause would give the guest a break in the middle of this elaborate 2-hour feast. Often, a Sorbet or a Roman Punch (sometimes a frozen libation) would have been served at this time. On this particular night, Mr. Collis Huntington (the Host) served a Sorbet of Champagne. It’s interesting to note here that French Champagne; Pommery & Greno Sec. was served with Sorbet of Champagne. 

Once the guests had cleared their palates with sorbet the next course, a game course of Roast Squab was served with a variety of vegetables, dressed Artichokes & Jelly a la Italienne and Asparagus, Sauce Mousseline. Heldsieck & Company’s Dry MonoPole, a second champagne completed the course. 

To finish off this opulent evening, Sandemans vintage Port was served & enhanced the Pudding a al Conde & fancy Mikado Ices. Coffee was poured at the elaborate meal’s conclusion.  

“Huntington Dinner” 12-course menu with wine & champagne (1892)

Event: The “Huntington Dinner” Banquet at the Palace Hotel, SF, CA Annual Banquet for the top employees Southern Pacific Railroad Co. & Central Pacific Railroad Companies; hosted by Collis P. Huntington Location: Palace Hotel, Montgomery St., San Francisco, CA Date:  April 23, 1892 Guests: 100 or more guests

1. Oysters on the half shell served with Chabis white wine

2. [Soup course] Consomme des Sportsmen [a flavorful rich beef or game broth with minced beef or lamb, carrots]

3. Savories: Cromesques of Liver with Truffles ( liver mousse served       with crackers & served with white Sauterne wine

4.  [Fish course]: Brook Trout a la Arc en Ciel, served with Potatoes a la Parisienne served with Claret wine

5.  [Chicken course] Braised Capons a la Ambassadrice served with Burgundy red wine

6.  Cassolette of Frogs a la Presidente also served with Burgundy red wine 

7.  [Entree course] Spring Lamb a la Nancy (Roasted Lamb was a favorite of the Huntingtons) served with Pommery & Greno Champagne

8.  Sorbet of Champagne (instead Huntington of “Roman Punch”)  

9.  [Game course] Sec. Roast Squab served with a variety of vegetables served with French Champagne, Pommery & Greno Sec.

10. [Vegetable course] Asparagus, Sauce Mousseline served with Heldsieck & Co. Dry Mono Pole, 2nd Champagne

11. Dressed [California] Artichokes

12. Jelly a p’Italienne served with Sandemans’s Vintage Port wine

13. [Dessert Course] Pudding a al Conde serve with Coffee

14. Mikado Ices serve with Coffee

Published in the San Francisco Examiner Sunday Monday, April 24, 1892 as the “Huntington Dinner”, menu included.


HEH Coll. MS Box 198 uncat (Mr. H. E. Huntington’s personal papers and newspaper articles) documents located at the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA

Newspaper Article: San Francisco Examiner, Monday, April 24, 1892 title of the article “the Huntington Dinner” a Delmonico Banquet in San Francisco.

Newspaper Article: New York Times article 1891, Ward McAllister’s dinner in honor of C.P. Huntington

Historical Note: Three menus located at the Huntington Library have detailed descriptions of the 12-16 course annual banquet dinners. The seating charts show that the guest lists ranged from 90-110 guests. The two seating charts available for the banquets in 1898 & 1897; held at the Huntington’s Nob Hill Mansion (on California & Taylor) show that diners were seated at a horseshoe-shaped table with Collis P. Huntington at the helm. The tradition of a horseshoe-shaped table was common for the Huntington annual banquets. The table was handsomely put together with green leaves & roses & flowers. Collis Huntington’s wife, Arabella had great taste & elegance in her entertainments. Background music was provided at the banquets but since the evening was a gentlemen’s only affair, it is doubtful there was any dancing.

Bouquets on the long tables filled with American Beauty Red Roses were a classic. This velvety bright red rose is actually “Veteran’s Honor”. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage

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