Sunday, 27 March 2016

A great collection of historic restaurant menus from the 19th century

Restaurant menus may not look like important historical material from our perspective, but a certain lady called Frank E. Buttolph had a different idea more than a century ago. In 1899, Buttolph offered to donate her private collection of American menus to the New York Public Library. Today, The New York Public Library has a collection of more than 45,000 historical restaurant menus ranging from the 1840’s to the present day. This is probably one of the largest menu collections in the world that is still growing. The person responsible for this huge gastronomical collection today is Rebecca Federman and she has a job title that sounds really tasty: Culinary Collections librarian.

Federman is the latest caretaker of this amazing collection, but the real visionary was Miss Frank E. Buttolph. She dedicated her whole life to this collection. Buttolph collected menus from every possible place that she could think of. She constantly wrote letters to restaurants, palaces, banquet halls, asking them for their menus and explaining her mission to them. It should be mentioned that Miss Buttolph did all of this on a voluntary basis, because she believed in the historical significance of these pieces of paper.

Besides collecting as many as she could, she was especially trying to find the menus that were used by important people or that were present on the table during an interesting moment from history. Buttolph was thinking about events like 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.

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