I love reading menus. They are the shop windows of the kitchen and provide a playful sense of gambling for what might just be the best of worst meal of your life. Today I stumbled upon a rather mind-boggling collection on the NYPL Digital archives of thousands of restaurant menus dating as far back as 1851.
More than 25,000 menus were collected by a “somewhat mysterious and passionate figure, whose mission in life was to collect menus.” In 1899, Miss Frank E. Buttolph (1850-1924) donated her collection to the library, requesting that they continue collecting after her death on her behalf.
“Her principal method of acquisition was to write to every restaurant she could think of, soliciting menus. When letters failed, she often marched into a restaurant and pleaded her case in person. She also placed advertisements in trade publications like The Catererand The Hotel Gazette, but just as often, published news of her collection prompted outright contributions of specimens from around the world.”
As early as 1914, Mr. Foster’s Travel Magazine observed that the collection “is made for historical purposes, and represents every grade and shade of social condition, from the crowned and uncrowned rulers of nations, to the humblest of their subjects.”
I had a dig through the collection and pulled out some of my favourites…
The Daily Menu at Revere House in Boston, 1851
Mart Ackerman Saloon, 1856
Notice the railroad time table at the bottom of the menu. Zoom in here.
Dinner at Astor House, NY, 1854
The Astor family played a major role in the development of luxury living and dining in New York City. However, in spite of the almost unavoidable biases of her time in favor of celebrity and aristocracy, Miss Buttolph’s collection does include bills of fare from fifteen-cent lunchrooms as well as the Waldorf-Astoria.
Oakland Beach Hotel, Rhode Island, 1880
Child’s Lunchroom, Broadway, NY 1900
Greenhut’s Lunch Room, NY 1914
A Russian caviar sandwich for 25 cents! Zoom here.
Hotel New Yorker, 1937
Beluga caviar for $2.25, compared to this modern-day menu where it’s offered for £235! Zoom here.
Dimaggio’s, San Francisco, 1956
Golden Nugget Restaurant, Downtown Las Vegas, 1956
Discover the Miss Frank E. Buttolph collection here.