There’s something about restaurant menus--especially those from a bygone era-- that intrigue and fascinate. Is it the ability to peek into another time through the lens of food? Notice tastes and trends that extend beyond food culture? Get a sense of signature ‘decade’ foods? Remark upon the unique graphic design sensibilities of another era? Trend economic and immigrant movement and influence through menu choices? Vicariously revisit and conjure up tastes, smells and emotions?
Probably all of this and more.
The Los Angeles Public Library is one of many public libraries in the United States to collect menus--restaurant, airline, banquet, steamer, railroad, you name it--as an archive and special collection. The Los Angeles Public Library’s collection ranges from the 1870s to the present, and totals nearly 9 thousand unique items. Currently, nearly seven thousand menus are searchable online (www.lapl.org) with images. Menus are popular with anyone interested in food--from patrons, hobbyists, artists, travelers, foodies and culinary historians.
Many save menus as a hobby, a reminder of a special occasion, a special meal, or a special someone. Dr. Melvin Schrier, a retired optometrist and current Palos Verdes resident (formerly of New York) did it for all those reasons, and recently donated his wonderful collection of over 30 boxes of menus--representing New York and Los Angeles and many places in between--to the Los Angeles Public Library, a wonderful recent addition to our rich and varied archive.
In March of 2013, I received a call from Monique Sugimoto, Local History Librarian at the Palos Verdes Public Library. Dr. Schrier, an active local resident and world traveler, was looking for a home for his extensive menu collection. Since the inventory fell outside the scope of the PVLD archival collection, Monique Sugimoto contacted the LAPL. When she asked whether we would be interested in accepting a large donation of menus, we immediately said yes. Monique invited me and Emma Roberts, Librarian III in Art, Music and Rare Books, to visit her at the Palos Verdes Main Library and graciously drove us to see Dr. Schrier at his home in nearby Portuguese Bend.
Dr. Schrier warmly greeted us at the door. From his balcony breathtaking and unobstructed views of the Pacific Ocean momentarily distracted us from all of the artwork and photographs-- including a collection of Coca Cola bottles from different countries--which line the bright and airy apartment. Dr. Schrier is something of a Renaissance man: optometrist, University lecturer, inventor, author of over a dozen professional articles, amateur photographer, traveler and all-around bon vivant. After sifting through a random box from the 50s that Dr. Schrier brought up from storage, it didn’t take very long for Emma and I to realize we were definitely going to accept this donation.
With menus dating from the early 1940s, Dr. Schrier originally began his collection as a chronicle of his life--and later, travels with his family. In addition to menus, he collected theater playbills and travel memorabilia, maps, coasters, ticket stubs, and other ephemeral items. Most importantly from an archival standpoint, he very considerately noted the month, day and year of the visit--including the name of his dinner or theater companion--making it very easy to accurately and precisely date the menus, many of which have no such indication or marking.
Dr. Schrier has been going through the over 30 boxes he’s amassed over the years one last time before we come to pick them up--at our suggestion, in order to reserve personal items for himself. Each box is meticulously marked with the year and all destinations within the year or span of years. As he unpacks the boxes for one final lookover, he is, in effect, “living my life over again and wishing that I had the people in the boxes to share the memories with me.”
The Los Angeles Public Library is very thankful to Dr. Schrier for his donation. His collection is a wonderful testament to how one person’s gathering of miscellany becomes historical artifact and visual treat.