In August of the year 1900, readers of the US “Hotel Monthly” magazine found this advertisement: “It is of great importance that the menus are well-packed and put between two large cardboards since otherwise, they will get dirty and will be ruined by sending it through the post, which makes them valueless. The great thing about this collection is that almost all of the 3,600 menus are in a perfect condition, but I had to fight harder than General Otis on the Philippines in order to be able to keep my standard. Should it be lower, I will quit my work.“
Behind the drama of this advertisement, there is the collector Frank E. Buttolph (1850 – 1924). There is only little known about her: in 1899, she donated her menu collection to the New York Public Library – and made the offer to further collect for the library. Frank E. Buttolph pursued this activity until her death in 1924: she writes to all restaurants she knows and requests them to send her a copy. She displays promotional material in specialist publications such as “The Caterer“ and “The Hotel Gazette“ and then receives menus from all over the world. At the end of her life, she will have collected over 25,000 menus, which are made available in the public domain to the New York Public Library today. Her passion and her personality which was maybe not so easy arose different reactions: the employees of the New York Public Library one by one complained about her, finally resulting in her receiving a ban on entering the library in 1923 – one year before her death; however, the New York Times dedicated three articles to her between 1904 and 1907.
Miss Buttolph was well aware of her mission: “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...." (extract from one of her last letters to the management of the New York Public Library).
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From unemployed cooks to the first menu in Europe
It is not clearly known how long menus – in the sense of a written list of offered dishes – have been in existence. An early version is said to have already existed during the Chinese Song Dynasty (between 970 and 1279 A.D.) In densely populated cities, retailers prepared dishes for their busy customers who had no time for cooking. The differences in the food preparation in the Chinese regions then resulted in the cooks preparing lists for food for their guests.
Menus in Europe did not come into being before the 18th century, for which particularly one development was essential: the establishment of public restaurants around 1770 in Paris as a result of the French Revolution. After the end of the courtly life and the dissolute lifestyle of the French aristocracy, those who had worked for the aristocracy, among them many cooks, were seen on the streets of Paris. They opened the first restaurants which were accessible for everyone as long as they could pay.
The range of these early restaurants is said to have been so large that it became necessary to write down the various dishes and beverages. Besides the public restaurant, the menu was born, too. Yet not only Parisians wanted to go out for dinner – the concept of restaurant including a menu quickly spread in whole Europe and beyond.
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The menu in the service of science!
The importance of historical menus for oceanography is not obvious at first glance. However, the US Scientist Glenn Jones found by chance a menu sheet from the 1950s during his researches on historical fish stocks and their development and classified his finding correctly: as reliable data on fish consumption. What was consumed? Where and when was it consumed? How much did it cost? Mr Jones gained this knowledge from old menus and was not only able to identify historical fish stocks but also to determine why certain species have become so rare (and thus more expensive) today.
The prime example: the lobster. In the middle of the 19th century, it was still known as poor man's food. One century later, it was an expensive delicacy. The more popular the lobster became, the more it was fished. The stocks shrank, lobster fishing became more time-consuming and prices increased. Today, lobsters are only allowed to be sold if they have a certain size and smaller animals have to be put back into the sea. This further reduces the supply and also let prices increase.
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The Ladies' Menu, the Secret Menu and the menu effect
A menu hardly known and rarely used today is the so-called “Ladies' Menu“. About eighty years ago, it was customary to offer female restaurant guests accompanied by men the ladies' menu without asking them. What was special about this menu was that it contained no prices. This should enable a woman to make a selection without being influenced by the prices – of course, under the assumption that the woman neither had the control nor the decision over financial resources. Today, this menu is still used in high-end restaurants only – it is also a popular menu at business meals where the host pays the bill. In this case, however, also male guests receive the "Ladies' Menu".
Another phenomenon in the context of menus is the “Secret Menu“. It mostly does not exist in written form but spreads through word of mouth. Various US fast food restaurants do have such a secret menu which allows to extend the often reduced menu by various options – if the guest knows the names.
And then there are “Menu Costs“ – an economic term used to describe the rise in costs in gastronomy. However, in doing so, it takes into account all occurring costs: not only meal or material costs but also adjustment costs (e.g. for the reprint of menus, management etc.), so that guests have to pay more than the “pure“ price increase.
In times of inflation, such as during the World Economic Crisis in 1929, the price increase was so extreme that it was no longer worthwhile to print menus. Instead, a waiter stood on a table every half hour to announce the price increases.
Frank E. Buttolph no longer experienced this development – she probably would not have been amused by this.
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