THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

26 February 2013

Guest Post: Miss Frank E. Buttolph – menu collector extraordinaire

Buttolph menu

Dinner in Honour of His Grace the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, 1904, C.120.f.2

Public Domain Mark These works are free of known copyright restrictions.

The Library holds a curious collection of menu and event cards from the turn of the last century which were collected and donated to what is now the British Library by an American lady called Miss Frank E. Buttolph. The menu cards feature meals served not only at restaurants but also at state banquets and annual association and society dinners. They often include details of the order of service, toasts and anthems from the events, and some even include full seating plans. Many of the cards feature sumptuous print and beautiful illustrations and offer us a glimpse into the eating habits, social mores, fashions and food trends in America at the turn of the twentieth century for a certain strata of society. The cards are delicately held together in four, large, leather-bound volumes and chart Miss Buttloph’s exhaustive menu collecting project. Ranging from ornately decorated hardbound embossed menus to much plainer railroad dining-car menus, the collection spans the years 18901904.

Miss Buttolph sent some menu cards and an accompanying letter to us in April 1902, enquiring as to whether we could help with her attempts to acquire two copies of the menu for King Edward VII’s coronation, due to take place in August of that year. She also wanted to find out whether a menu card from the Millenary Banquet for King Alfred had arrived; it had and can still be found in the collection today at shelmark C.120.f.2. Unfortunately we do not know whether she ever managed to obtain the Coronation menu cards that she was so keen to secure.

Miss Buttolph posted adverts and wrote letters to people all over the world to solicit menu cards for her project, and was quite fussy about the quality of the items sent to her. She did not hesitate to send back menu cards if they did not reach her high standard. In an article from 1906 the New York Times described her as 'a tiny, unostentatious, literary-looking lady, whose bugaboo is a possible spot upon one of her precious menus.'  Miss Buttolph was indeed a formidable character, who took her task of collecting menu cards extremely seriously; during her time as a volunteer at the Astor Collection (now part of The New York Public Library) she would only allow people to view the collection of menu cards held there under her strict supervision.

The collection at the British Library includes menus from some of New York’s most fashionable establishments of the day, such as Delmonico’s, and the Waldorf Astoria; from state banquets such as one held in honour of HRH Prince Henry of Prussia; to a banquet for the Ancient Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, held in Arkansas in 1903. The majority of the menus were written in French, usually with no description of what the dish actually contained. The diners’ knowledge of French cuisine was assumed; Ris de veau a la Pilgrim, Petits aspics de foies gras à la gelée and Sorbet de fantasie are the some of dishes that appear on the menus. Oysters and mock turtle soup also seem to have been firm favourites of the period.

Miss Buttolph originally began collecting menus for what is now The New York Public Library (NYPL), which holds over 25,000 of the menu cards that she collected for them over some 23 years. However, many staff at the library found her disruptive behaviour untenable and she was dismissed in 1923. The NYPL is currently running a project called What’s on the Menu to transcribe its archive of over 40,000 digitised menu cards, including Miss Buttolph’s, dish-by-dish.

There aren’t many details available on the intriguing Miss Buttolph or why exactly she started collecting menu cards but there are a few clues as to her motives in an article from the New York Times in 1904, which noted that  'she frankly avers that she does not care two pins for the food lists on her menus, but their historical interest means everything.' They are indeed of great historical interest, offering us a charming insight into the way people dined at the turn of the twentieth century and the society in which they lived.

- A guest post from Sue Msallem, SOAS intern.

Good NIght
[Shelfmark C.120.f.2]

Public Domain Mark These works are free of known copyright restrictions.

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