When a Woman Collects Menus

Sifting Stories and Histories of Frank E. Buttolph’s Research Collection


Portrait of Frank E. Buttolph
Portrait of Frank E. Buttolph, Moreno and Lopez Photography Studio, ca. 1900, from the New York Public Library Manuscript and Archives Division.

The collection of historic menus at the New York Public Library (NYPL) was created by a woman named Frank E. Buttolph. From the beginning, she intended the collection to be a research collection. In much of what has been written and documented (and repeated over and over again) about the menu collection, commentators launch into discussions of the collection’s size and richness, pausing momentarily to regret the paucity of information available about its creator. According to this common trope, Buttolph is a “mysterious and passionate figure”1 who led a “quite private life” 2 about which (regrettably) not much can be known 3. Yet in trying to make good on Buttolph’s original intent—that the collection be used for research—and also in trying to curate the digital data set that NYPL has created from this physical collection, we found ourselves unable to accept the historical absence of the collection’s creator.

We wanted to understand the provenance of the menus data and, therefore, needed to know how the physical collection that underpins the digital data came to be. To maintain, or even improve, “the interest and usefulness” of the menus data for humanities scholarship, we want to situate the collection in local and historical context.4 To achieve this, we needed to understand more about Buttolph herself. The more we researched Buttolph’s life, the more we found ourselves compelled to tell a better and fuller story about her and her work as a collector in the early twentieth century.

The details of Buttolph’s life are not as unknowable as we had been led to believe. A fairly sturdy outline can be assembled from surviving documentary sources—work made easier, no doubt, by the growth of digitized collections available for full-text searching. Yet having more of “the facts” about Buttolph at our disposal paradoxically increased the challenge of doing research with her collection. We were prepared to find that aspects of Buttolph’s personal history had perhaps overtly shaped which menus she collected—either through access (to particular strata of society versus others) or through enthusiasm (for particular types of menus). To some extent, this is the case, but the interconnections between the life and the collection—and now its descendant, the data set—are less overt and more interesting.

Our research pushes back against the most oft-repeated stories about the historic menu collection and its creator. These brief narratives emphasize the eccentricity of the menu collecting project or frame it as a personal obsession, and present Buttolph as a lucky amateur and an enigmatic spinster. Instead of the personal project of an amateur collector, which happened, by good fortune, to become folded into the collections of the New York Public Library, we now understand this collection as a research collection built by a woman invested in cultural preservation and public knowledge-building. We can see the menus collection as the contribution of a woman whose work was in sync with the project of the larger institution around her during one of the library’s most diverse and active periods of collection building. Indeed, finding out more about Buttolph suggests that what is mysterious here is not her biography but the prevailing representation that casts her life as mysterious and not profitable or interesting to investigate further.

Once we focused on this more interesting story, we had to grapple self-consciously with the challenges of how to make sense of this woman, her work, and the data that derives from that work. As we researched Buttolph, we found ourselves asking questions about what it meant to tell her story. We faced what historian Jill Lepore calls the “tricky work” of writing about people’s lives.5 In the case of Buttolph’s story, the challenges stem from records, which (while not so barren as suggested) must still be counted slender and from the awkward fit between the picture of Buttolph we can develop and traditional “Great Man” or even Great Woman notions of biographical subjects.6

In her essay in The Journal of American History, Lepore makes a distinction between different types of writing about people’s lives based on the aims of each type. Writers can “seek to profile an individual and recapitulate a life story,” in order that readers might know the person better. Or, they can “address themselves to solving small mysteries about a person’s life as a means to exploring the culture.”7 Researching Buttolph’s life had the built-in dramatic interest that motivates not only scholars but also genealogists and family historians—“tracing [an] elusive character through slender records,” celebrating each new crumb or cache of documentary evidence. Every discovery of a detail about Buttolph seemed to invest us in a project of recovering her personal story. Yet what should we make of one (incomplete) life story?

We want to understand Buttolph’s life as a way of better curating the data set built from her menu collection. When placed in historical context, the tension between exploring Buttolph’s life story for itself or for what it can tell us carries a specific charge. We suspect that the lack of attention paid to Buttolph’s life comes not only from the specific circumstances of that life but also from the wider culture in which she lived (and in which we still live). That is to say: it matters that Buttolph was a woman.

We tell her story in the context of historians who have “writ[ten] women into librarianship.”8 According to Suzanne Hildenbrand, as summarized by Phyllis Dain, these approaches include: 1) “compensatory history that rescues women from obscurity;” 2) “delineation of a separate women’s culture with its own validity;” and 3) “the study of women in history, interacting with men and involved in the dominant patriarchal culture.”9 The thrill of the historical chase, the excitement of “discovery”, the pleasing sense of fairness might incline us toward a project of rescuing Buttolph, the individual, from obscurity. However, since our project aims to use the menu data to produce new knowledge, the third kind of analysis is most salient: acknowledging Buttolph’s gender as a significant factor helps us to account for “the systematic ways in which sex differences cut through society and culture and [confer] inequality upon women.”10 The interpretive strategies that comprise humanities research, which attend to dynamics of culture and history, give us purchase on questions just like these. Thus, attention to Buttolph’s life and its representation is part of the work of humanities data curation.

If the common, easy narratives about Buttolph and the collection are problematic not just for what they get wrong about the woman but also for what they get wrong about the meaning of the resulting collection and data set, what considerations would improve them? As a beginning, we reconsider her collecting practices, her relationship to the library around her, and her gender as ways to critique the presentation of a “mysterious and passionate Miss Frank E. Buttolph.”

When Women Acquire

When women acquire the collecting mania, they often branch out in the most unexpected directions, and take up what appear to be trivial and foolish specialties. Sometimes these develop into collections of real value, the more so because no one else thought it worthwhile to make such collections.

It was a fairy-tale queen, was it not, who was so wrapped up in her collection of buttonholes? We thought her very silly in the fairy-tale, but we appreciate her now as the patron saint of all museums of domestic art.

When Miss Frank Buttolph began to collect menu cards and bills of fare, no one thought of it as anything better than a rather tiresome freak, on which a vast amount of energy was being wasted that might have been expended better.11

The writer of the The Literary Collector magazine’s March 1905 “Notes” section presents “Miss Frank Buttolph” as an amateur, eccentric, a woman obsessed with a bizarre collection. This representation is not unusual, for Buttolph or many other woman collectors of the time.12 Over the course of this brief notice, The Literary Collector’s anonymous writer seems to be won over to the value of Buttolph’s collection. “When she began to get menus in all languages from all countries, [the collection] grew a bit interesting to the scoffer,” the writer avers. He or she concedes that the collection will be “invaluable to the late twentieth or twenty-first century writer of the history of the nineteenth-century civilization,” without fully subscribing to this conclusion or recanting the gendered caricature which opened the piece. He ends by framing Buttolph’s aims using a turn-of-phrase that may undermine them: “For the historian of the future has Miss Buttolph consciously been making this collection, and she feels sure of his appreciation.” In many ways, this note in The Literary Collector encapsulates how Buttolph and her work have been viewed. The depiction’s acerbic nature makes plain stereotypes that surround Buttolph, often subtly, into the twenty-first century.

Menu from the Columbia Restaurant
Menu from the Columbia Restaurant, 1901, from the Buttolph Collection of Menus, New York Public Library.

By telling the story of Frank E. Buttolph’s collection—yet again—and telling the story of those stories told about her, we hope to provide new contexts for understanding her work as a collector. We begin with stories about the origin of the collection. When Buttolph and her collection were featured in newspaper articles, journalists often retold a story about how Buttolph’s awareness of the changing century—specifically her first sight of the year “1900” printed on the menu of a restaurant on New Year’s Day—inspired her project of collecting for the library. Buttolph herself recounted this story in a letter to the New York Public Library’s board of trustees:

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 [sic], why not preserve others? As a result 930 have passed through my fingers to the Astor Library.13

The first notice of the collection, from The New York Times might suggest that Buttolph was just another donor among what was, at the turn of the twentieth century, a growing roll of august and high-minded contributors to the new and expanding New York Public Library. “Gift for the Public Library,” from February 15, 1900, reports on a donation of new funds for purchasing materials on sociology and economics and mentions that “Miss Frank E. Buttles offered to give to the library a collection of a thousand hotel and restaurant menus. She has already turned in over 900 ….” It would seem that, in the writer’s mind at least, Buttolph’s project could be classed with the gifts and donations as part of ordinary library business. Yet, very quickly the details of the story do not support the view of Buttolph as a traditional donor.

A later New York Tribune retelling of the story of the New Year’s menu that inspired the collection tells a different story. The anonymous (likely male) author’s assumptions revert gender roles in a way that robs Buttolph of agency and thus normalizes her project as ordinary work of the library:

Her first effort was due to seeing for the first time on the bill of fare of a restaurant in Union Square the date 1900. She took away the bill with her and spoke to her superiors at the Astor Library about it. They proposed keeping it, and Miss Buttolph at once decided to begin collecting bills of fare. 14

Giving the authority for the project to the library buttressed male authority since even though, by this time, most librarians were women, library administrators and leaders were almost all men. One of the journalists from The New York Times who covered the collection likewise reported of Buttolph’s “peculiar interest” that “Dr. Billings, the librarian, has enrolled it amid the archives of learning.”15

Comparing other contemporary newspaper articles about the menu collection, many of which feature reported statements by Buttolph herself, suggests that she did not mind changing the tale of the collection’s creation to make a better story. Exactly when, how, and why the collection was started changes between tellings. The versions allow us to see the effects of gender and power relations shaping the narrative and how Buttolph used press attention in service of her project. The New Year’s story has dramatic appeal, but was the collection project started in early 1900, or had Buttolph already begun collecting? Did she “walk into the library and ask to speak to the director” about commencing the project, or was it proposed at a board of trustees meeting?16

The library’s institutional records add little information about the collection’s genesis. The shape of the story retold in the brief accession sheet accompanying the “Miss Frank E. Buttolph Papers” is familiar though the details differ slightly from the newspaper accounts. The library’s record recounts that Buttolph approached the library around the turn of the twentieth century; NYPL Director John Shaw Billings agreed to preserve menus and engaged her to collect them for the library, which she did until the end of her life. The exact phrasing is interesting in its elliptical treatment of just how the commencement of the project was negotiated: “Miss Buttolph inquired whether the library would preserve some then current menus.” There is nothing particularly authoritative about the accession sheet, which is dated March 30, 1987, and represents little more than a convenience for researchers, appended to Buttolph’s personal papers almost sixty-five years after their acquisition as part of the Library’s formal process of registering the collection. Indeed, this record, which asserts only that Buttolph “had friendly relations with the New York Public Library for many years” appears to have been cut-and-pasted together. The bland formulation about “friendly relations” was literally copied into the finding aid for Buttolph’s papers from a notice written by a library staff member on the occasion of Buttolph’s death in 1924.

Buttolph was mentioned only twice in the library’s own regularly-published bulletins and annual reports. The first (and most extensive) mention, in The Bulletin of the New York Public Library published in January 1907, is a description of her collection included in a summary of the previous half-year’s activities of the Reference Department. This notice refers to “the collection of menus, formed largely by Miss Frank E. Buttolph” as though it were part of the library’s collection and not an outside gift and without giving any indication that Buttolph was not a member of the library staff. However, when Buttolph’s collection is mentioned again, in the Director’s annual report (for calendar year 1909), it is a much briefer mention in a section on “Purchases and Gifts.” The difference may be simple inconsistency—it was surely difficult to keep straight the details of various collections year after year in reports with multiple authors. Yet if we combine this discrepancy with the oddities of phrasing in Buttolph’s letter (her reference to “fil[ing] a bill of fare at the library”), in The New York Times reporter’s story (that Buttolph had “turned in” over nine-hundred menus), and in the library’s surviving documentary record of the collection’s origin, they seem to suggest a more unusual arrangement than donor and gift. The slipperiness of details about how the collection started reflects the ambiguity of Buttolph’s position.

“Is there not some place in which my knowledge … could be utilized?”

At the end of January 1900, about two weeks before her proposal to the library trustees to make a “donation” of the menu collection, Buttolph wrote to NYPL Director John Billings to inquire about the possibility of employment. “I see a great many women employed at the Astor Library. Is there not some place in which my knowledge of books, countries and languages could be utilized in a manner remunerative to myself?”17 We have not been able to find any record of Billings’ reply (if he made one) and Buttolph never did gain a professional position at the library. However, this brief application does introduce a glimpse into her biography at the moment she was beginning her most active association with NYPL.

Interior of a branch library
Women working in the New York Public Library at 115th Street, from the New York Public Library.

One significant distinction between Buttolph and the “great many” women employed at the library may have been her age. When she made her request, Buttolph was fifty-six years old (only six years younger than Billings himself). Perhaps more significant than her age is the fact that she seems interested in employment (not volunteer work) for the library. Given the very existence of the named collection and her long-running position as a volunteer, it would be easy to assume that Buttolph had a different class background and position than she did. However, her biography draws into relief her collecting work as part of a longer investment and career in education.

Frank E. Buttolph was born Frances Editha Buttles in 1844, in Mansfield, Pennsylvania.18 Due to the presence of a state normal school, this small town in north central Pennsylvania close to the border with New York state offered an important educational opportunity to the young Buttolph. The normal school replaced an earlier “classical seminary” in Mansfield in 1862, and offered professional training to prepare high school graduates for careers as schoolteachers. Buttolph was a member of the first graduating class of this new institution. Indeed it was the alumni reports in the annual catalogue/yearbook of the Pennsylvania State Normal School, Mansfield, Tioga County, now digitized and made available at the Internet Archive, that helped us follow Buttolph’s career before she came to NYPL.

After her graduation, Buttolph embarked on the career of an itinerant school teacher, usually spending only a year in each place. Based on the Normal School catalogs, we can follow her from Mansfield to Rahway, New Jersey; Cattletsburg, Kentucky; Wilmington, Delaware; Brooklyn, New York; and Tivoli, New York. Buttolph and her younger sister Permelia (also a Normal School graduate) ventured as far west as St. Paul, Minnesota, in the mid-1870s. She taught a range of subjects and, as is evident in her later collection development and translation work, was versed in several European languages.

Many of her teaching posts were at schools associated with the Episcopal Church, and Buttolph appears to have been an active church member throughout her life. In the early 1880s, she traveled to Germany and may have visited other destinations in Europe. Gradually, Buttolph’s travels gravitated toward to New York City. Though the evidence becomes spotty, she seems to have more or less relocated there by 1887, with the exception of a return to Mansfield around the time of her parents’ deaths in 1890 and 1893 respectively.

From various sources, it’s apparent that Buttolph lived in the same general section of Manhattan, between 14th and 19th streets, never far from the Astor Library, for the entire twenty to thirty years she remained in New York. She did gradually move from the east side (near what is now Beth Israel Hospital) to the west side near the 9th Avenue elevated railway, to a section of Chelsea in which the Depression-era New York City Guide noted, “a large number of brownstones, originally built as private residences, have been converted into lodginghouses.” For an educated, well-traveled, single woman, the Astor Library would have been an attractive local resource and perhaps a natural place to spend her free time. While it appears she may have been collecting before her formal relationship with the Astor Library began, the details of her engagement with cultural preservation emerges most clearly through the trails of letters in periodicals and in archival materials from the NYPL.

Buttolph’s Collecting Practices

When reporters wrote about Buttolph’s collection over the next twenty years, they usually focused on its oddness and its celebrity interest—particularly in the form of royal and political menus.19 In aggregate, these articles seem to frame the collection as frivolous, despite the occasional lip-service to “history” and “posterity.” As a collector, they often present Buttolph as both the driving force in the collection and as a bit eccentric. A quote from 1906 article suggests some of the discourse that surrounded the menu collection:

It cannot make its impression a part of literature, nor can it be described as an appendix to history, nor has it any place amid ‘old manuscripts.’ It must forever stand for what it is, the ‘Buttolph Collection,’ or, to describe it more elaborately, in the manner of old-time sub-titles, it is ‘the feminine instinct for accumulation verified by a lady, with neatness, elegance, and artistic verisimilitude.20

Yet when examined closely, Buttolph’s collecting practices and principles identify her as someone committed to research and preservation, invested in producing a broad, high-quality collection. Firm distinctions between “amateurs” and “professionals” are not possible to make during this period. To assess Buttolph’s project, we need to look closely at the work she did without relying on labels such as amateur and professional. A close reading of even the heavily stereotyped stories about Buttolph often reveals details of her work. For example, in “Literature of Eating, Collection of Menus in the New York Public Library,” the author says, “When Miss Buttolph attempted to transcribe the bill the last line worried her greatly.” While the author goes on to tell a story that showcases Buttolph’s sense of humor, this detail also reveals that she was transcribing materials. She created notes about the provenance and content of many menus and designed an organizational schemes for cataloging the menus, which she implemented in the form of a card catalog, and she attended to the physical housing and preservation of materials.

Menu from the Buttolph Collection
Menu from the fifteenth anniversary banquet held by the Stewards' Association of New York at Reisenweber's Circle Hotel, Eighth Avenue and 58th Street, 1905, from the Frank E. Buttolph Menu Collection, New York Public Library.

The collection stamps that emboss almost every menu in the Buttolph collection, sometimes multiple times, may suggest the possessiveness that has been ascribed to collectors, most famously in Baudrillard’s “The System of Collecting,” Buttolph was part of a segment of turn-of-the-century collectors who were invested in preservation as an act of social engagement.21 To get a truer measure of Buttolph’s collecting activities, we examine her project activities in ways promoted by Anthony Shelton, who says, “Too much recent opinion has tried to reduce and generalise the ‘collector’ to a common type person without examining the complex motivations underlying their actions or the relationships between their collections and their other productions and their worldview.”22 To understand Buttolph’s other productions and worldview, we begin not with the menus, but with church bulletins.

In 1900, The Churchman, a weekly magazine for the Episcopal community, published a short piece in response to a letter Buttolph (under the name Buttles) wrote to the Bishop of the New York. In it, she expressed concern over “the woeful waste of artistic programmes of Church festivals.” She had come to an agreement with sextons of two churches to take some their extras and distribute them to a range of people, including “the man at the umbrella stand in the Astor Library.” She goes on to encourage “a committee in each parish who would rescue these leaflets from the flame and then scatter them where there is genuine appreciation of their beauty.”23 A few things in this short narrative are significant for understanding Buttolph’s relationship to collecting and the menu collection. First, she venerated the ephemeral. Second, she saw the aesthetic and cultural purpose of ephemera. Third, she takes the initiative to work with people within institutions to collect and share these materials. And finally, she had an idea of audience that is as broad as her idea of what is valuable—extending to the man at the umbrella stand.

Buttolph saw institutional collecting as a way of having ephemeral cultural materials–like church bulletins, small publications, and menus–saved and made accessible for future use. Through her archived correspondence and published excerpts in contemporaneous journals and magazines, we see that Buttolph was engaged in multiple preservation projects. The notice of a letter to the editor of the World’s Fair Bulletin, concludes, “Miss Buttolph has also sent several numbers of the World’s Fair Bulletin to Edinburgh University. She says: ‘This whole series is too valuable to be kept in private hands.’”24 The quality of an article on prisoner of war camps “induced [her] common sense to file the Confederate Veteran at once in the Astor Library Reading Room,” she wrote in a letter to the editor of that magazine, adding, “This course met the approval of the Library officials.” 25 Buttolph collected, filed, and sent documents to a range of institutions, primarily the New York Public Library, but also the library of the nearby Cooper Union and institutions such as the British Library and the Library of Congress. The menus, then, are far from a single-minded obsessive project. While the menu collection was Buttolph’s largest undertaking, it was part of a wider practice of engaging with institutions to save documents that would carry meaning for future readers.

Pennsylvania Railroad Menu
Menu from the Pennsylvania Railroad, November 1, 1917, from the Frank E. Buttolph Menu Collection, New York Public Library.

Buttolph’s practices can be traced by examining the Frank E. Buttolph Papers at the New York Public Library. Her papers include hundreds of letters she received during the time she curated the menu collection. Buttolph created most the collection by requesting menus from people and organizations in writing. She wrote hundreds of letters to restaurants, rail and ship companies, social organizations, chambers of commerce, government agencies, printers and trade journal and newspaper editors. At her request, contributors regularly sent her menus, some for over a decade; others collected on her behalf; and a number gave her leads for other stewards, establishments, or texts that might help her collection building. Even those who didn’t send menus would often write explanations for why they didn’t have any to contribute and would commit to doing so if they could in the future.

She seems to have moved categorically through various sources. For example, a correspondent suggested that though they didn’t have copies of their own menus, their printer might. Her response was not simply to write their printer, but to write a number of printers, seizing on this kind of business as a new source for the collection. While one can see her personal interests in some of the collecting directions (writing to many Sons of the Revolution chapters for event menus), she seems to mainly be interested in breadth and completeness (getting a copy of menus from all the routes of a particular railroad company). Handling the postage and mailing for her expansive letter-writing campaigns was one of the ways that the NYPL agreed to provide support for Buttolph’s volunteer efforts.

The ways that correspondents engaged with Buttolph—the information they provide her, the letters of hers that they refer to—form a picture of a woman deeply invested in collecting, who also generously shared materials, writing, and thoughts. While her papers reveal that she could be aggressive about the condition of menus, non-responsive correspondents, and errors in print and bibliographic records, they reveal her interest in preserving and understanding cultural history (particularly, she seems to have an investment in American history). She pursued information and materials pertaining to the meaning of flags, the experience of war veterans and memorialization, and the lives of revolutionary-era Americans. And of course, she and her correspondents frequently discussed the cultural and historical value of having these menus collected.

In addition to letter writing, Buttolph placed ads in newspapers and trade magazines like the Hotel Gazette. She worked with members of the press to write about the collection regularly. Though she was not always pleased with the outcome of the articles, she received new menus from people who read about the project and continued to engage with the press through the early 1920s. This publicity work simultaneously grew the collection and drew attention to its value.

Buttolph was also invested in curatorial practices that focused on long-term preservation. She was quite particular about the condition of the menus she received (unbroken and unsoiled) and about the conditions they were kept in. Early in the project, she complained to the director of the library because the menus were rubberbanded together, which would leave marks on them. She did a range of preservation work “mounting on cards rare silk menus, pen-printing others, smoothing out and mending them which were crumpled … because every menu must be absolutely perfect to be preserved.”26 At the outset, she even suggested having the menu collection kept closed to the public for fifty years as a way of preserving its content for future historians.

A silk menu with card backing
Mounted silk menu from dinner to Count Ferdinand De Lesseps held by Citizens of New York at Delmonico Hotel, 1880, from the Frank E. Buttolph Menu Collection, New York Public Library.

By reading the evidence that Buttolph left about her own work, we can begin to see past the broad stereotypes about collectors attached to her. The fact that she volunteered at the NYPL for more than twenty years to do this work demonstrates her personal commitment. However, her approach to that work and the menu collection in particular, was not a personal fetish but an investment in institutional preservation and future research.

Buttolph in the Library

We can deepen our understanding of Buttolph and her project beyond what she and her correspondents might have thought to note or mention explicitly by considering the library within which the menu collection was created and curated. The twenty-year association between an unmarried middle-class teacher and the still-young New York Public Library is one of the most interesting and suggestive aspects of the menu collection’s and therefore the data set’s provenance. The milieu of the late nineteenth-century research library—and indeed specific features of the Astor Library and the larger NYPL organization into which it was subsumed—suggest how narratives that position the menu collection as exceptional (and its creator eccentric) are not reflecting simple absences of factual detail. Such narratives about Buttolph and her collection also reflect gendered ways of understanding library history.

The Astor Library is central to Buttolph’s story. Though the entity formally named “The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations” came into being as a merger of the Astor and Lenox Libraries and the Tilden Foundation in 1895, the research division of the NYPL, for which Buttolph volunteered, existed as separate physical locations at the site of the Astor and Lenox Libraries until the iconic main library building at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue was opened in 1911. Buttolph’s “career” at NYPL was almost evenly divided between the Astor Library building in Lafayette Place and the “new” building further uptown. By association, the Astor Library underscores the research-focused nature of the menu collection and Buttolph’s serious intent in creating it.

Engraving of the Interior of the Astor Library
The North Room, Astor Library, Lafayette Place, New York, 1876, from the Art and Picture Collection, New York Public Library.

The Astor Library opened in 1854 as a public reference library founded by private philanthropists and directed toward scholarly interests. The gift to establish the library came about through the lobbying of Joseph Green Cogswell, a scholar, educator, and bibliographer who had served as the college librarian at Harvard, traveled widely in Europe, founded a progressive school, edited significant scholarly journals, and tutored the children of New York elites. It was in these elite social circles Cogswell met and became friends with the wealthy merchant John Jacob Astor. So, while the donation was Astor’s (in a codicil to his will), the vision for the library, its collections, and even the design of its building were largely Cogswell’s.27

In an early report to the library trustees, Cogswell expounded on his vision for a scholarly library: “There are but few general libraries in this country … and here, in this great city especially, one was needed to supply before existing deficiencies: one that would enable the scientific enquirer to track the progress of knowledge and discovery to its last step.”28 The need for an endowed reference library for the serious pursuit of knowledge was deployed in arguments about the non-circulating nature of the Astor collections, about raising the minimum age to use the library to sixteen from fourteen, and about the need for an analytical catalogue (which became Cogswell’s own project until his retirement). The result of this ethos was a well-known and well-respected library but perhaps not a well-loved one. A biographer of John Shaw Billings, the first director of the consolidated NYPL, diplomatically characterized the Astor Library at the time of the merger as having “concern only for the committed researcher.”29

The scholarly bent of the Astor Library extended even to its architecture. Just as Billings would be involved in the plans for the NYPL building on 42nd Street, Cogswell had been heavily involved in the plans for the Astor building fifty years earlier. Housed in an early Victorian Italianate structure, the design of the Astor Library’s interior space was inspired by European and specifically German models. By the 1870s and 1880s, librarians would be pejoratively referring to this type of architecture as “alcoved book halls.” “These buildings have lofty rooms and a large open space surrounded with alcoves and galleries which are used for the storage of books,” wrote William F. Poole in a Library Journal article summarizing the most common features of such spaces.30 Poole was intensely critical of these designs from the perspective of the professional librarian—he accused boards of trustees of new libraries of copying the worst features of existing buildings. Though, as historian Abigail Van Slyck points out, “while it is easy to imagine a donor relishing the comparison of his gift to one of the great European libraries of the past, the appeal of [this] library formula is more deep-seated than mere vanity.” Such designs Van Slyck argues “were particularly successful at articulating the family metaphor that sustained nineteenth-century philanthropy.” The combination of imposing public space, careful control of where visitors were allowed to move within the building, and domestic coziness (within the smaller alcoves), “library users were at once in a public institution and in the bosom of an extended family” (headed by the munificent donor). Partly in response to shortages of space and partly perhaps trading on this family metaphor that Van Slyck articulates, the staff of the Astor library selectively allowed visitors past the main charging desk to sit and work in the alcoves.31

These “alcove reader” privileges allowed researchers better access to sections of books related to their interests. Alcove readers were required to sign a logbook upon entry—giving their name and a few details of their particular research project. We suspect Buttolph’s interest in genealogy may have brought her to the library. By the late nineteenth century, there was new and growing interest in genealogical research (a subject that had been treated with some suspicion in the early life of the United States) and specifically, leading up to and after the centenary, in finding and preservation information about Revolutionary War-era ancestors.32 From a brief inquiry published in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, the first American genealogical periodical, we know that Buttolph lived not far from the Astor Library and that she was seeking information about what appears to be a personal ancestor who served in the Revolutionary War.33 Though alcove reader privileges were phased out in 1896, not long after Billings assumed Directorship of the library (to make room for more book stacks), it is perhaps not far-fetched to imagine Buttolph spending several years prior visiting the Astor Library, signing in as an alcove reader, and pursuing her genealogical research in a section devoted to American history. When Buttolph was then granted an alcove to work on her collecting project after the end of alcove privileges for ordinary patrons, this communicated in real physical terms the location of her work within the larger NYPL.

Buttolph’s attitude to her collection may have reflected the tenor of the library around her in another significant way. A New York Times article from 1906 mentions Buttolph’s “ceaseless personal supervision” of her menu collection, implying, a few paragraphs later, that this is (in the author’s jocular view a somewhat comical) defensive vigilance on the part of an “unostentatious, literary-looking lady whose bugaboo is a possible spot upon one of her precious menus.”34 This journalist’s characterization plays neatly into stereotypes about collectors, especially women collectors, but we might consider how this depiction ascribes to Buttolph as personality quirks what were probably common attitudes to the library workers around her. One of the complaints that librarians made against the design of library buildings with numerous alcoves was that this design made it impossible for employees to monitor readers from a central service desk.35 In the 1870s, vandalism of books at the Astor was problematic enough to rate a story in The New York Sun and to cause conflict among the library staff over responsibility for the problems.36 Readers were expelled from the Astor for defacing and damaging books—which while still precious and possibly expensive could probably be replaced. Buttolph’s collection was composed of unique ephemera—as the trials she encountered in her collecting made plain. In this light, Buttolph’s relation to her collection is less the greedy protectiveness of a collector and more a reflection of professional attention to preservation of the collection materials for future use.

As we’ve discussed above, in the glimpses we have of Buttolph describing her own work, much seems to hinge on her desire to “preserve” the things she collected, including of course, the menus. An awareness of the preservation function of libraries, perhaps forcefully imbued by the milieu of a scholarly reference collection, seems to have been part of what distinguished collecting at and for the library. To return to one version of the collection’s origin story, what leaps out is the way that Buttolph herself saw her efforts as part of a larger library project and how she thought of the library as an agency that she could use for the ends of cultural preservation. “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 [sic], why not preserve others?,” she wrote. Buttolph’s use of the phrase “file … at the library” is intriguing—why choose that particular verb to describe her project? With its managerial connotations, “filing” suggests the perspective of someone already embedded in the departmental work of the library. A patron bestowing a gift might “deposit” or “donate” a collection, but they would probably not “file” it.

Whatever the reason, the fact that she referred more than once in correspondence to filing things at the library suggests that she felt empowered to do so. At the time Buttolph began her official project, Billings was engaged in enrolling many new types of materials into the collections of the New York Public Library. Once again, Buttolph’s menu collecting was not “a tiresome freak” as the editor of the Literary Collector would have it, but one more contribution to the diverse collection building the library was undertaking at the turn of the twentieth century. During the decades when it was only the Astor Library, the funds available from the original donor’s bequest were insufficient to meet all of the institutions expenses, and it was difficult to convince other patrons to support the library when someone else’s name was above the door. Thus, when Billings took over the combined libraries, the collections, while significant, were rapidly falling behind other peer institutions.

Billings directly supervised book purchases but also emphasized aggressive collecting of pamphlets, periodicals, reports and public documents. In 1899, Billings initiated divisions within the Reference Department for Jewish and Slavonic collections in recognition of New York City’s changing demographics.37 As in most libraries, gifts were an important source of collections. Due in part to Billings’ “catholic approach to collecting … [and] his interest in ephemera,” half of the acquisitions made during the library’s first decade were gifts, of which many were pamphlets and documents.38 In the same year the Jewish and Slavonic collections were begun, the NYPL accepted a collection of three hundred prints with the intention of building a department devoted to collecting graphic materials. As Dain, the foremost historian of the NYPL observes, “the development of these special departments was comparatively uncommon at the time and represented Billings’ characteristically pragmatic approach.”39 The significance of this for our understanding of Buttolph is not only that her extensive collecting was in sync with the purpose of the broader library around her but also that there was no fixed organization of library materials and departments for her menu collection to fail to fit. In its contemporary context Billings’ acceptance of Buttolph’s project amid the other activities of the growing library would not seem unusual.

(Miss)ing Histories and the Work of Frank E. Buttolph

In 1921, Frank E. Buttolph’s alcove was emptied out, many of its materials crated and sent off to her, and she was basically dismissed from the library (as a volunteer, she could not be fired). The reason for this dismissal is not completely clear, but letters from Buttolph and from library staff, patrons, and the director suggest that she had come into increasing personal conflict with the people working around her. The NYPL file also includes charges that, in retrospect, seem trumped up to accelerate her dismissal. She was charged for instance with stealing books and with using the alcove for non-library collecting. Buttolph denied these charges, proclaiming repeatedly that her work was always for the library and for future historians. In 1924, she died of pneumonia at Bellevue Hospital.

This seems like a sad ending. The surviving records and letters about the end of her association with the NYPL might seem to corroborate all the narratives of eccentricity and mania that circulated and have continued to circulate about Buttolph. She did not like the whistling of the pages who fetched books from the stacks; she chided people about how they were caring for books; she called the police on children playing in the park next to the library. However, the fact that Buttolph could lose her temper and complained about the practices of her fellow humans does not undermine her assiduous and important work. It does not make her collecting less professional or her collection less a research collection (just as it would not were she a sometimes unpleasant man). In some ways, the kinds of complaints she registers, throughout the two decades she is at the NYPL, to her coworkers, to editors, to collection contributors, reflect her investment in order and precision and, often, in getting the historical record right and having full and broad preservation of menus as evidence for future scholars. The point of our work to expose the stereotypes in these narratives, to restore some context to them, and to retell them — is not to make Buttolph a saint, but to understand how her work and her life have been framed in order to better understand the meaning we can make of her collection.

The ways Buttolph’s actions have been recorded and interpreted reflect larger cultural constructions and interpretations of the data made from her collection must take seriously the experience of women in shaping libraries and the role of gender as a category through which those experiences have been recorded and narrated. In the NYPL’s collection and in most other places (including until recently Wikipedia) Buttolph has always been referred to as “Miss Buttolph” or “Miss Frank E. Buttolph.” While her name—Frank short for Frances—isn’t actually that unusual for a woman of her generation, the use of a feminized term of address seems to have become integral to how people understood her. Even while she was living, Buttolph’s correspondences include various foibles concerning her name and gender. She often chooses to sign her own letters (Miss) Frank E. Buttolph—acknowledging her gender and marital status, but doing so parenthetically. Another frequent misassumption is that Frank E. Buttolph was her husband. If so, she would properly be Mrs. Frank E. Buttolph. More significantly though, this framing—as a philanthropic wife rather than a working woman who invested her own time and resources making a research collection—is no better.

As Clare Beck traces in The New Woman as Librarian: The Career of Adelaide Hasse, outspoken, competent women did not fare well with their male supervisors in libraries in the early twentieth century.40 Beck follows the story of Hasse, who worked at the Los Angeles Public Library, the Government Printing Office, and the NYPL. Hasse created new systems of collecting and organizing public documents and is now recognized for her significant and innovative contributions to librarianship.41 However, she was accused of stealing documents from the GPO, and her position at the NYPL ended in a host of accusations and complaints about her being a “difficult woman, selfish, bad-tempered, and unreasonable.”42 The parallels between the type of work that Buttolph and Hasse were doing (extensive use of correspondence, building and organizing large collections of primary source materials) and the kinds of cases that were built against them (around their personalities and the use of institutional resources) suggest that despite the difference in their professional positions, they share a cultural position of being hyper-competent female research librarians in environments that were hostile to their intellectual contributions.

Buttolph was and is, like all humans, not fully legible. However, her collection is far from the idiosyncratic hobby project of an eccentric woman. Instead it reflects the rise of research collecting in libraries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and with that an investment is broad, publicly-facing, long-term use and historical value. The ways she obtained and maintained her collection—her aggressive collecting and preservation strategies—are part and parcel with the creation of research collections, particularly of primary source materials, in libraries of the early twentieth century.


Thanks to the New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division, especially to Susan Waide, and to the New York Public Library What’s On the Menu? project members, especially Dave Riordan. Thanks to Brian Vivier and Jen Guiliano for reading earlier versions of this piece. We also appreciate the support of Martha Brogan. Finally, thanks to CLIR for creating the occasion for us to meet and for championing scholarly work in libraries.

Please cite as

Trevor Muñoz and Katie Rawson, “When a Woman Collects Menus: Sifting Stories and Histories of Frank E. Buttolph’s Research Collection,” Curating Menus, April 16, 2014, http://www.curatingmenus.org/articles/when-a-woman-collects-menus/.


  1. “Miss Frank E. Buttolph American Menu Collection, 1851-1930,” New York Public Library Collection Guides, http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/explore/dgexplore.cfm?col_id=159.

  2. Alison Ryley, “The Prime of Miss Frank E. Buttolph: Notes Toward a Menu History of New York City,” Biblion: The Bulletin of the New York Public Library, Fall 1998, 56.

  3. Rebecca Federman, “The Queen B: Miss Buttolph and Her Menus,” What’s On the Menu, Food For Thought, NYPL Labs blog, April 28, 2011, http://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/04/28/queen-b-miss-buttolph-and-her-menus.

  4. Melissa H. Cragin, P. Bryan Heidorn, Carole L. Palmer, and Linda C. Smith, "An Educational Program on Data Curation," (paper presented at the Science and Technology Section, America Library Association Conference, Washington, DC, June 2007).

  5. Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” The Journal of American History 88.1 (June 2001): 129-144.

  6. Barbara Caine, "Feminist Biography and Feminist History," Women's History Review 3.2 (1994): 247-261.

  7. Lepore 133.

  8. Suzanne Hildenbrand, "Some Theoretical Considerations of Women in Library History," The Journal of Library History 18.4 (1983): 382-390.

  9. Phyllis Dain, "Women's Studies in American Library History: Some Critical Reflections," The Journal of Library History 18.4 (1983): 451.

  10. Kathleen Canning, Gender History in Practice: Historical Perspectives on Bodies, Class, and Citizenship (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2006): 7.

  11. "Notes," The Literary Collector: A Magazine of Booklore and Bibliography 9-10 (1905), eds. Annie Dennis Bursch and Frederick C. Bursch: 107.

  12. See Beth Muellner, “The Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Her ‘Untidy’ Collection,” Women’s Studies 39 (2010): 536–561; J. Samaine Lockwood, “Shopping for the Nation: Women's China Collecting in Late-Nineteenth-Century New England,” The New England Quarterly 81.1 (2008): 63-90.

  13. Quoted in Ryley.

  14. "Menu of Aguinaldo Dinner, Which Was Broken Up by Funston, Secured by the New York Public Library," New York Daily Tribune, June 14, 1903.

  15. "Most Interesting Array of Menus in the World; 'Buttolph Collection' at the Astor Library Includes 14,500 Bills of Fare from All Parts of the World---Unique and Painstaking Work," The New York Times, June 3, 1906.

  16. Michael Lesy and Lisa Stoffer, Repast: Dining Out at the Dawn of the American Century (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013).

  17. Frank E. Buttolph, letter to John Shaw Billings, January 29, 1900, Edwin Hatfield Anderson Records, The New York Public Library Archives, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

  18. Steve Orner, "Miss Frank E. Buttolph Mystery Solved," Miss Frank E. Buttolph: Menu Lady Mystery Solved, http://frankbuttolph.wordpress.com/; U.S. Census Bureau, 1850, Richmond, Tioga, Pennsylvania, M432_830 179B 359.

  19. “Literature of Eating; Collection of Menus in the New York Public Library,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), June 20, 1903, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1903-06-20/ed-1/seq-7/; “Menus from Many Lands; A Collection Soon to be Placed on Exhibiition,” The Times (Washington, DC), April 28,1901, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85054468/1901-04-28/ed-1/seq-20/; “When Royalty Dines; Some of the Good Things Prepared, as Shown by the Buttolph Menu Collection,” The New York Times, May 22, 1904.

  20. "Most Interesting Array of Menus in the World."

  21. Jean Baudrillard, “The System of Collecting,” Cultures of Collecting, eds. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal (Harvard University Press, 1994).

  22. Anthony Shelton, Collections: Expressions of Self and Other (London: Horniman Museum and Gardens, 2001), 19.

  23. The Churchman 81 (1904), ed. George S. Mallory, 38.

  24. World's Fair Bulletin 3 (1901), 41.

  25. "Proof to Value of the Veteran," Confederate Veteran 8 (1900): 114. -- cannot find citation

  26. Frank E. Buttolph, letter to Mr. Galliard, July 19, 1921, Edwin Hatfield Anderson Records, The New York Public Library Archives, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

  27. Dain 3-10.

  28. Harry Miller Lydenberg and the New York Public Library, History of the New York Public Library: Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundataions (New York: New York Public Library, 1987): 32.

  29. Carleton Chapman, Order out of Chaos: John Shaw Billings and America's Coming of Age (Boston: Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, 1994), 290.

  30. William Frederick Poole, Circulars of Information of he Bureau of Education: The Construction of Library Buildings 1-1881, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1881.

  31. Abigail Ayres Van Slyck, Free to All: Carnegie Libraries and American Culture, 1890-1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995): 7-8.

  32. Francois Weil, "John Farmer and the Making of American Genealogy," New England Quarterly 80.3 (2007): 408-434.

  33. "Notes and Queries," The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 52 (1898): 76.

  34. "Most Interesting Array of Menus"

  35. Van Slyck 6.

  36. Dain #.

  37. Dain 130.

  38. Dain 122.

  39. Dain 122.

  40. Clare Beck, The New Woman as Librarian: The Career of Adelaide Hasse (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2006).

  41. "One Hundred of the Most Important Leaders We Had in the 20th Century," American Libraries 30.11: 38-48.

  42. Beck 149.