Arnold Shircliffe spent his life in the catering trade, working in almost every branch of it. He held jobs in railroad dining cars, the Army, hotels, clubs, and restaurants. He began as supervisor of a dining car in 1902, remaining in that occupation for a couple of decades before becoming catering manager of the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. While there he published the Edgewater Beach Hotel Salad Book in 1926. Around 1936 he became manager of the restaurant in Chicago’s Wrigley Building, then known as Grayling’s, a position he held until his death in 1952.
By 1928 he had amassed an impressive collection of cook books that included a first edition of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy published in London in 1747. Somewhat later he began to collect menus.
In 1954 Arnold’s son Harold auctioned his father’s collection which by then was vast and focused mainly on antique cook books. It also included what was described in the auction catalog of the Parke-Bernet Galleries in NYC as “the Pride and Joy of His Life,” about 14,000 menus. The catalog has been digitized as part of the Hathi Trust and can be viewed in its entirety.
I have been able to find only two auction records from the sale of the 697 lots in the Shircliffe auction. Mrs. Glasse’s folio-edition book went for $300. The sum is equivalent to several thousand dollars today but it strikes me as very low. Another rarity, William Turner’s A New Boke of the Natures and Properties of All Wines That Are Commonly Used Here in England, published in 1568, brought $500.
The menus were grouped in lots numbered 354, 420-422, and 470-473. I find #354 quite fascinating. It is described as a Horn Book Menu made of wood, almost 8 inches tall and 3 inches wide, with a handle and a manuscript menu labeled “The Carte of the Palais Royal Dinner,” presumed to be English from the 19th century. In a 1943 note, Arnold wrote about a horn book he displayed at a culinary exhibit put on by the Societe Culinaire Philanthropique de New York at the Hotel Commodore. He said that horn books were originally worn around children’s waists and used for studying the ABCs, prayers, etc. Then, he wrote, “The model of the horn book or paddle was taken up by the restaurateurs and they used same as a menu – when it was issued to the waiter, his name was placed upon it; this hung from the waiter’s side in many restaurants and the menu was read to the guest. The menu or horn book was charged to the waiter, and when he left the service or was discharged, his name was scratched off and the name of the new waiter placed on same.”
The largest auction lot of menus was #470 which held an estimated 10,000 items, many from 19th-century American hotels. In it was a tavern broadside from 1790 showing the set price for “the best dinner,” but the oldest true bill of fare, from The Rainbow in NYC, was dated 1838.
In another annotation for the exhibition of the Societe Culinaire Philanthropique Arnold explained that the Tremont House in Boston was one of the first to issue written menus. He added, “The earliest hotel menu that I have is dated 1825.” No menu from a date this early appeared in the list of highlighted items in lot #470, however there was a menu from the Tremont House dated August 25, 1844, that was similar to that of May 1844 shown above.
In 1955 Arnold’s son donated 10,000 menus to the New York Historical Society. A short time later the Historical Society put them on display with the bill of fare from The Rainbow included. This leads me to believe that it was lot #470 that Harold Shircliffe donated. The Historical Society’s notes on the Shircliffe Menu Collection say only that “The core of the collection was assembled by Arnold Shircliffe but has been added to since its donation.” I can’t help but wonder if lot #470 had failed to receive any acceptable bids — or any bids at all – and that was the reason for the donation.
The NYHS menu collection is viewable at the Historical Society’s Patricia D. Klingenstein Library on a walk-in basis (registration with a photo ID required). An electronic database of what is contained in the collection is available at the library.
© Jan Whitaker, 2013