What was a popular dessert during the Civil War? How much did a beer cost in 1929? What happened to boiled tongue, roast goose, and other popular dishes of ages past?

These questions and more are being answered by a project from the New York Public Library. In “What’s on the Menu,” volunteers are transcribing the library’s collection of 45,000 historical menus dating from the 1840s to the present, one dish at a time.

So far, 1,330,506 dishes have been transcribed from 17,544 menus since the project launched in April 2011. The Library is transcribing the menus to allow for expanded research and access.

“Historically, patrons wanting to look through the menu collection could only request menus by name or time period,” says Rebecca Federman, electronic resources coordinator and culinary collections librarian for the New York Public Library. “Now that the dishes are also represented in the database, researchers can sort by dish or specific item.”

Historians, writers, chefs, and others can track the history of a dish by searching the transcribed menu collection online for a particular item or restaurant menu. They can note when an item first appeared on a menu, view the menus, and see how much the item cost. For example, Green Turtle Soup appears frequently beginning in 1862, but disappears over the next century.

The Library also offers periodic data summaries on dishes. It tracks on how many menus a dish appears, when it first appeared, when it last appeared, and its highest and lowest prices.

The first record of a grilled cheese sandwich came in 1941, when it cost $0.15. Cigarettes appeared on menus from 1884 to 1987.

The most popular dish appearing on the menus is coffee, which, so far, appears on 7,740 transcribed menus. Other perennial staples include mashed potatoes (landing on 2,585 menus) and apple pie (1,486).

About three quarters of the menus are from New York establishments, though some come from other East Coast cities, California, and major European cities, Federman says.

Most of the menus came to the Library in the early 20th century and Miss Frank E. Buttolph, a Library volunteer, is credited with building the collection. She amassed 25,000 menus between 1900 and 1924, and the collection has continued to grow through gifts.

Volunteers are continuing to tackle transcription of the menus online, and the project has no end in sight.

“People seem to enjoy the project and they spend a bit of time helping us transcribe and correcting any faulty transcriptions,” Federman says. “There are many more menus to transcribe, and we’re hoping to continue digitizing menus and making them available for both transcription and research.”

By Sarah Niss

Industry News, Menu Innovations