The New York Public Library has a collection of more than 45,000 historical restaurant menus from the 1840s to the present. It’s one of the largest menu collections in the world and it’s still growing, with Culinary Collections librarian (such a great job title) Rebecca Federman at the helm. She is the latest in a line descending from a formidable visionary named Miss Frank E. Buttolph who began collecting every menu she could get her hands on, mainly by writing with unstinting dedication to restaurants, palaces, banquet halls, whoever had the goods all over the world.
It wasn’t a hobby or even about the food for her. Miss Buttolph dedicated her life to collecting menus because she believed they had genuine historical value. She made a point of seeking out menus used by notable personages or that were on the table when momentous events took place around them. Events include the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandria, the Prussian Siege of Paris in 1870, the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo where President McKinley was assassinated and a banquet thrown by Emperor of Japan for William Howard Taft, then Secretary of War, during the 1905 Taft–Katsura discussion.
An article published in the June 3rd, 1906, issue of the New York Times (pdf) acknowledged the drive for historic preservation underpinning her collection in amusing terms.
Miss Buttolph is making history for the year 2,000 which, should our present carnivorous natures by that time merge into a diet mild and milky, will hold this generation up as an example of brute force that should annihilate all our virtues and leave us in the eyes of our descendants a race of horror and greed, a pack of flesh-eating outcasts remarkable only for our gastronomic endurance.
While there are certainly a great many more calves heads, tongues, mutton and brain aspic than one commonly sees on menus today, there are also a surprising number of plain raw vegetable appetizers like celery or radishes. Just like a plate of celery. Coffee and tea appear the most frequently in the collection. Celery takes third place. The real stand-out to me, now that the year 2,000 has come and gone, is how lacking in variety so many of these menus are. Basically, if it’s fine dining, it has to be French or French-adjacent. There is little distinction between an 1843 breakfast menu in New York and a dinner menu from 1857 in Mobile, Alabama. It’s a lot of meat with French-like preparations, although at least the Battle House in Mobile had very respectable pie options. It’s all nuts and fruit in New York. Even the menu from the Streets of Mexico Restaurant at the Pan-American Exposition had far more ragout of beef, boiled trout with hollandaise and roast lamb with mint sauce than food remotely related to Mexico. The tamales and enchiladas (25 cents apiece), chili con carne, salsa and frijoles (15 cents apiece) at the very top of the menu were forced to carry the full burden of Mexicanness.
In 1899 Miss Frank E. Buttolph offered her collection of menus, already in the thousands, to the New York Public Library and offered to continue adding to the collection. NYPL director Dr. John Shaw Billings accepted both generous offers and Miss Frank collected menus for the library the next 25 years until her death in 1924. The Buttolph Collection of Menus had 25,000 menus in it at the time of her death.
Now it’s 20,000 items larger and close to 19,000 bills of fare have been digitized and are available to peruse online in the New York Public Library’s extensive digital collections. The digitization project is ongoing, but it’s not an easy job. Some of the menus are in very delicate condition and require conservation before they can be scanned. Meanwhile, the collection is only searchable at a very basic level. Information that was in the catalogue description — location, date range, name of hostelry — is the only data that can be searched digitally. The menu items themselves are not.
To remedy this, the NYPL started an open transcription project where volunteers can hand-enter all the details on the menu from food to wine list to prices. The power of the crowd is more effective in this case than OCR scanning because a lot of the menus have condition issues that make the letters less clear, crooked layouts or handwritten entries. A person would have to edit every OCRd page anyway, so best to cut the middleman.
It seems like the project is just about caught up right now. Every decade I clicked on showed the menu transcriptions as done, but bookmark this page and check it out once in a while for a new influx of digitized menus. There are a lot of treasures mentioned in several turn-of-the-century NYT articles that have yet to be digitized. I’d love to catch one of those fresh off the presses.