The New York Public Library Menu Collection

Rebecca Federman

With approximately 40,000 menus in the collection dating from the 1840s to the present, the New York Public Library’s restaurant menu collection is one of the largest in the world.  The collection is used by historians, novelists, food writers, and general food enthusiasts to answer a very simple, but not necessarily easy question: what did (and do) people eat when they dine out? What kind of oysters were shucked in 19th century oyster houses? What imported beers were served stateside in 1941? How much did a typical cocktail cost in 1962? What kinds of cheeses were on offer at a hotel banquet dinner in 1901? 

But the menus also go beyond food, and point to issues related to the politics of the time, neighborhood development, and the evolution of graphic design. One can glimpse the everyday world on a given day through menus.  Researchers can determine how eating establishments responded to President McKinley’s assassination, or how the Meatpacking District of New York City changed between the years 1985 and 1999, or how the Air France/British Airways’ Concorde incorporated fashion design and book illustrations into their airline menus. 

I became acquainted with the menu collection at an exhibition held at the New York Public Library in 2002 through 2003 called New York Eats Out, curated by the New York Times restaurant reviewer at the time, William Grimes. From Delmonico’s—the bastion of 19th century Gilded Age cuisine—to the tragedy and loss of Windows on the World on September the 11th, Grimes created a historical narrative of restaurant life in New York. The story, told largely through menus, was vibrant, engrossing and new. As someone who had recently started the Masters in Library Science program at Pratt Institute, I was transfixed by the informational value of these ephemeral documents. 

A few years later, after working with the menu collection as an intern, I was offered a position as a librarian at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (then called the Humanities and Social Sciences Library), where my duties included being allowed and encouraged to grown, organize, and oversee the remarkable menu collection. 

But long before I rolled up my sleeves and immersed myself in the menus, the menu collection was managed, and in fact, created by one woman, Miss Frank E. Buttolph. According to archival holdings at NYPL, in 1899, Miss Buttolph approached John Shaw Billings, the founding director of the New York Public Library, to ask if he would be interested in a collection of menus to commemorate the approaching turn of the century. He agreed, and from that moment until her departure in 1923, Miss Buttolph made it her mission to secure menus for the Library.

Her collection development process was impressive. She placed advertisements in hotel and in restaurant trade journals of the day, including Hotel Monthly, where she asked restaurant managers to send her menus, but emphasized above all else, the importance of mailing the menu so that its condition remained intact. She wrote, “It is of the highest importance the cards should be well wrapped and then placed between stiff card-board of a larger size, else they are sure to be soiled and broken in the mail, which condition renders them worthless. One beauty of this collection is, nearly all of the 3,600 cards [in the collection] are perfect, but I have had had to fight harder then Gen. Otis did in the Philippines to keep my standard in position. When it has to be lowered I shall discontinue the work.” (August, 1900)

Miss Buttolph was also a savvy self-promoter. She spoke often to journalists from the New York Times, and the New York Tribune about the collection and developed friendships with a number of restaurateurs and managers, including Oscar Tschirky of the Waldorf-Astoria (whose own collection of menus is housed at Cornell University).

Eventually, Miss Buttolph was asked to the leave the Library because of disruptive behavior, but she accumulated roughly 25,000 menus during her tenure at the Library.

After Buttolph’s dismissal, the acquisitions to the menu collection slowed. However, thanks to generous donations from library donors, restaurants, and even fellow librarians, the Library has an increasingly strong collection of material that includes menu samples from the present day. We continue to add to it, because researchers continue to use it, and we hope that the interest and curiosity in the collection will result in even more generous and thoughtful menu donations. 

The menu collection is housed in the Rare Books Division of the Library, thereby requiring an appointment to see specific items. However, a few thousand of our earliest menus have been digitized and archived in the Library's superb Digital Gallery (along with other visual treasures). I've chosen just a handful of my favorites here, but I encourage browsing the online collection for even more delicious specimens.



Dennett’s on Park Row (a very popular NYC eatery)

Mouquin Restaurant & Wine Co.

Bradley Martin Ball Menu

Private celebratory occassions

Example of a menu, seemingly printed on silk

American Gynecological Society

Delmonico’s Menu

Hotel Kaaterskill

Fifth Avenue Hotel

Beefsteak Dinner Menu, Chicago, 1908

Greenhuts Menu

Ladies Restaurant




Invisible Culture

Issue no.14: Aesthetes and Eaters
- Food and the Arts

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