If you've transcribed even one menu, you've likely seen her stamp. A blue oval bearing her name, "Buttolph Collection", as graceful as a branding iron over asparagus, Russian caviar, or Boston baked beans.
Miss Frank E. Buttolph stamped nearly every menu she collected for the New York Public Library, twenty-three years worth, amounting to roughly 25,000 menus under her tenure alone.
But who was Miss Buttolph and why did she collect menus?
Neither question is easy to answer. We know from records that she was about fifty when she began her menu project, she was educated (she translated Tasso), and she was an avid collector of postcards with lighthouses.
Her most notable collection, her menu collection, began on January 1, 1900, with lunch. In a letter dated February 14, 1900 she writes:
"On New Year's Day I stopped in the Columbia Restaurant for lunch and thought it might be interesting to file a bill of fare at the library. A week later the thought occured, why not preserve others? As a result 930 have passed through my fingers to the Astor Library."
By August, Miss Buttolph was taking out ads in hotel and restaurant trade journals soliciting menus from their readership. This ad from Hotel Monthly (August, 1900) stresses the physical condition of the menus, or cards:
"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."
The full ad is reproduced below:
Miss Buttolph's colorful personality, which is suggested in the ad, was both the reason for her success and the cause of her downfall. Her diligence in hunting down menus (writing to restaurants, putting up advertisements, and speaking to the press), and her commitment to high quality (she did not hesitate to send menus back if they did not meet her standards) insured that the Library's collection was both comprehensive and pristine.
However, even though she was never an employee of the Library, Miss Buttolph's idiosyncricies and negative behavior ("Is this museum maintained by the city to afford whistling space for the cleaners, instead of for students?) upset many on staff and in the Library administration who felt that her behavior was too disruptive ("[Miss Buttolph] is contantly complaining about something and when she gets started, it is almost impossible to get rid of her.")
Miss Buttolph was dismissed from NYPL in 1923. She died of pneumonia at Bellevue Hospital the following year, on February 27, 1924.
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Despite her tumultuous relationship with the Library, her committment to her collection never wavered. In one of her last letters to the administration, she writes:
"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...."
Thank you, Miss Buttolph. Your incredible stamp continues to be felt, indeed.
Continue transcribing her collection on What's on the Menu?