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What's on the Menu?, Food for Thought, NYPL Labs

The Queen B: Miss Buttolph and Her Menus

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.

*     *     *

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?


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Such a great post, Rebecca!

Such a great post, Rebecca! So many things I had wondered about Ms. Buttolph have been answered. Funny, though, she's called "Ms. Buttles" in the ad. The whole menu transcription project is simply awesome & I can't wait to contribute!

Thanks, Gina!

Thank you, Gina! You've always been such an amazing help with the menu collection and I can't wait to see you soon...come back! Best, Rebecca

Miss Buttolph's Stamp

In the last few days, I've become quite annoyed with Miss Buttolph's stamps on these menus, especially when the text is hand-written and hard to read even sans stamp, but it's been a very illuminating experience to see what was on menus in the early 20th century and the glimpse of her personality in this blog entry is interesting. I'll try to bite my tongue the next time I encounter that bloody stamp over some obscure dish written by someone who was asleep when the Palmer method was being taught! And now, back to frizzled beef, Golden Buck and absinthe...

25,000? Oy!

25,000 menus, and we're currently at...2500! Well, one tenth the way there! Wait..."under her tenure alone". You mean there's even more after that! And I still haven't seen a menu past 1901. How recent do the menus in the collection go? Have you continued collecting them up to today? I'm hoping to start seeing later menus so we start seeing how dishes and prices change over time.

What fun!

I just started to try my hand at some of the transcription and am enjoying it tremendously. Thanks for a volunteer task I can do from my couch--whenever!

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