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What is the May Breakfast?

by Erica Paul, Summer Intern/ 2014-2015, Longmeadow Historical Society- Fall 2015 Issue

“What is the May Breakfast?” you may ask. Before joining the ranks of the Longmeadow Historical Society as a summer intern, I wouldn't have been able to tell you either. The only large annual spring event in Longmeadow that I was aware of was Long Meddowe Days, and I would think that is the case with many of the town’s citizens. But, imagine for yourselves, in our small town of Longmeadow, a grand event where people would travel great lengths to attend filled with gourmet and delicious food. This was an event where children and teachers were allowed the day off from their schooling and farmers and businessmen took a break for the day.  
Interestingly enough, the first May Breakfast was not an idea of an original family of the town. Arriving from Lowell, MA, Captain William H. Seamans and his wife were told the need for a town and First Church fundraiser and suggested what became the widely successful May Breakfast.  Previously, Longmeadow women who had been running oyster dinners and ice cream festivals for what seemed like forever jumped on the new idea. The First Church wanted to use the event to raise money for a new piano. The town responded enthusiastically and passed the bill for the new fundraiser. 1869 was the first year of the May Breakfast. The entry fee was 10 cents and many people paid to get a taste of the magnificent meal that was planned. The event cleared $200! While that may not seem like a large amount, it was more than enough to pay for the new piano.

The popularity of the event can't be questioned. Travelers from faraway places such as Europe  and Asia were said to have come to the event  and  remarked  about  its  excellence.  An article in the prestigious and timeless Good Housekeeping magazine quoted people who came from China, “carrying to oriental homes the memory of an occasion as worthy putting into words as any festival in their home across the seas”.  Of course, this statement seems a little bold, but the central idea is still present: the May Breakfast was one of the largest and finest events of its time in Western Massachusetts.

The evolution of the customs, food, and timing of the May Breakfast is an interesting indicator of the cultural changes occurring in America from the 1860's to now. Starting in the 1860's, the custom of the breakfast was a meal cooked at home and then brought to the breakfast. At the sound of the church bells, town citizens would recognize that it was 5 am and time to get up in order to prepare for the day. Nobody wanted to be late for the largest event of the year. Meals were served from 6 am to 3:30 pm continuously without breaks.  It is difficult to imagine today as a large majority of people go out to eat later in the day with restaurants not even opening until 11 am or later. Most importantly, the May 1 celebration was a time off for teachers, students, farmers, and businessmen. The May Breakfast was not only a community fundraiser, but also a celebration of another growing season and God's creations.

Here is a recollection of a May Breakfast in the 1880's through the eyes of a little girl: “I remember my first part in the May Breakfast Day. Dressed in my best white dress with a pale blue sash and hair ribbon, I carried a tray piled up with buttonhole bouquets for the gentlemen's lapels. These tiny boutonnieres were made the day before from all kind of wildflowers then in bloom, tied with narrow ribbons and priced a penny apiece.”

Other characteristics of the earliest May Breakfasts were the mad rush of the wisest citizens to the dessert table to select the best dessert before everyone else, the slow service of the local girls, and the use of the dumbwaiter- a simple device moving items from one floor to another. The pageantry of the event is not to be forgotten. Two women were responsible for one of seven tables, where they would showcase their best linen tablecloths, napkins, and exquisite silverware. Flowers were an important element of the May Breakfast: the chapel was decorated with them, and “pretty girls flitted about selling them”.  Other attractions at the event included candy tables, fancy tables, food auctions and fun and games.

The most interesting tidbit I discovered was the cleverness of the young boys running the dumbwaiter. Waitresses would give them the small slips of paper with what the customers wanted, for example, “4 broiled shad, 3 lobster salad and so on”.  These boys would add an extra lobster salad to the list “on accident”, and would scarf down the food before anyone else was the wiser. Lastly, familiar families in attendance at this time were the well-known families of Colton, Harding, Allen, Burt, Cooley, Chandler, Medlicott, and Emerson.

A newspaper article recounting the 50th anniversary of the May Breakfast in 1919 offers a slightly different story than the earlier versions of the May Breakfast. There was no raffling or guessing contest, as older members of the town did not agree with the idea of these events. The May Breakfast became increasingly more systematized and easier through the institution of more committees and more efficient planning. The largest change for this time was in 1918 when the hours were moved from 8 am to 3 pm to 10 am to 7 pm with widespread popularity. The article neatly paralleled “pretty girls with dainty aprons” who waitressed at the May Breakfast and declared them just as lively as their predecessors, most likely their mothers and grandmothers.

Over the ensuing years, the May Breakfast continued to be a popular event and continued even through a name change to the Harvest Supper. The last May Breakfast was in the 1970’s for reasons unknown, but there is a possibility the breakfast became cost prohibitive. Throughout the years since the Breakfast’s beginning, the cost of the meals continued to increase. It is hard to believe that lobster was ever only 15 cents.
 


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