In 1899, Miss Frank E. Buttolph donated her collection of thousands of New York restaurant menus to the New York Public Library.
The library’s director, Dr. John Shaw Billings, immediately offered Buttolph a volunteer position as the library’s menu archivist, and over the next 23 years, she devoted herself to the task of amassing menus from restaurants large and small, rich and poor. She collected roughly 25,000 menus from 1850 onward.
Using those menus and thousands more, the New York Public Library began a project earlier this year called “What’s on the Menu?” The project uses volunteers to transcribe the recently digitized menus to aid future research of New York City’s culinary past. As of Aug. 14, more than 500,000 dishes had been transcribed.
“Menu writing is an art form seldom appreciated. In our restaurants, we put an incredible amount of time and thought into crafting menus,” said Chef Mario Batali on the project’s website. “It’s remarkable to see menus being preserved and documented, for them to become a resource for future chefs, sociologists, historians and everyone who loves food.”
While there is little known about Buttolph, we do know that she was well-educated and a fervent collector throughout her life. To call her volunteer work with the library obsessive would be an understatement.
She frequently barged into private banquets at the city’s fanciest dining establishments and demanded a copy of their printed menu, funded magazine ads for menu requests with her own money and wrote detailed instructions for the proper storage practices of her beloved culinary documents.
Buttolph was largely unconcerned with food itself, but believed, nearly a century before the emergence of food studies, that menus would benefit future students and researchers. The New York Times wrote, “she does not care two pins for the food lists on her menus, but their historic interest means everything.”
Unfortunately, the same idiosyncrasies that made Buttolph a committed archivist also alienated her from her coworkers, who failed to understand her mission. Her reportedly disruptive tirades against everything from whistling to untidy desks eventually resulted in her dismissal from the library in 1923. Her last record came in the form of a letter to the library administration, in which she wrote, “For many years my library work has been the only thing I had to live for. It was my heart, my soul, my life. Always before me was the vision of students of history who would say ‘thank you’ to my name and memory.” One year later, she died alone of pneumonia in Bellevue Hospital.
Shortly after her death, several unknown students of history began to reignite Buttolph’s archive, which today boasts over 40,000 menus.
The “What’s on the Menu?” curators and volunteers will continue to digitize, transcribe, and share these menus online in the coming months so that people may better understand the city’s history through its stomach.