It was Monday, January 1, the start of a brand new week, year, and century. A patron at the Columbia Restaurant on 14th Street in NYC’s Union Square experienced a jolt when she looked at the menu. “The first time I saw the new date 1900 on a menu it thrilled me as if I had been suddenly transplanted to the planet Mars,” Miss Frank E. Buttolph would later say.
It occurred to her to save that menu. She gathered more and soon realized she had the makings of a collection. She donated 900 menus to the New York Public Library, with an offer of 1,000 more. By 1917 she claimed to have amassed about 28,000 menus for the NYPL, and had spent countless volunteer hours cataloging them and stamping them with the now-notorious blue stamp.
Although I suspect she actually started collecting menus in the 1890s, Miss Buttolph would repeat the engaging origin myth for years, using it in press releases and interviews to inspire menu donations from near and far, even from European royalty. Menu collecting was not unheard of, but had not yet become the fad it would be a few years later. It was said that when she began to collect menus, “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 better expended.” Poster and cookbook collecting were likewise viewed as trivial pursuits.
Born Frances Editha Buttles in Mansfield PA, Frank’s father was a wagonmaker and undertaker who filed at least a dozen patents for common tools. Frank became a teacher and taught in Rahway NJ, Minneapolis MN, Scranton PA (where she briefly ran her own girls’ school), Bolivar TN, and Saratoga Springs NY. I haven’t discovered exactly when she moved to NYC, but by 1900 Frank was a single 56-year-old whose family was deceased and who knew several languages and had traveled abroad at least three times. Her source of income in NY is unclear. She taught Sunday school and did some tutoring. She declared she was a magazine author but I’ve never found any of her publications. Perhaps she inherited money.
Evidently she had enough free time to spend long hours in her library office, first located in the old Astor Library and then, after the new Fifth Avenue public library building was completed in 1911, overlooking Bryant Park.
Her name “Frank” has caused much perplexity. Did it imply gender ambiguity? Although I can’t prove it didn’t, Frank was not a totally uncommon nickname for Frances which gained popularity in the 1870s and 1880s. She was known as Frank as early as 1866 when she finished teacher training [pictured]. It seems she was not especially fond of either Frances or Buttles. She researched her family’s genealogy and in 1900 changed her last name to the more dignified-sounding Buttolph, of which Buttles was a corruption.
Frank collected all sorts of menus, from restaurants, hotels, steamships, and trains. She insisted that they be clean and rejected those from businesses she sensed were simply trying to get publicity. Many she preserved were from club banquets or dinners celebrating famous individuals. Most were American, but she also collected menus commemorating the opening of the Suez Canal, menus from royal courts, and from other exotic occasions worldwide. It seems as though the public was most appreciative of rarity, but I am grateful that she saved menus from everyday restaurants such as the Columbia, all the more so since it went bankrupt about two years after her fateful visit.
© Jan Whitaker, 2012