The World's Largest Collection of Chinese Food Menus Was Collected by a Single Man - Gastro Obscura
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The World’s Largest Collection of Chinese Food Menus Was Collected by a Single Man

A Chinese restaurant menu from 1905, part of the New York Public Library’s Buttolph collection of menus. (Photo: Public Domain/New York Public Library)

Just in time for Chinese New Year, the University of Toronto Scarborough has acquired the world’s largest collection of Chinese restaurant menus. What makes this trove of menus all the more remarkable is that all 10,000 of them were collected by one New York City man.

Harley Spiller, a self-described “collector, curator, teacher, writer, artist,” received $40,000 for his stockpile of Chinese menus and assorted paraphernalia, collected over the course of three decades. The collection includes a menu dating back to 1896, as well as various takeout boxes, fortune cookies, and an eight-foot-long pair of chopsticks. The whole shebang had to be transported in over 50 boxes, that together weighed more than 1,100 pounds.

Scholars believe that the collection will be a valuable resource for studying the history of Chinese food in the United States and Canada, and how traditional dishes were adapted to local tastes. The menus also provide a lens into Chinese immigration to North America, in some cases helping to date when people from different regions in China first arrived, and began to open restaurants in their new cities.

The inside of Oriental Restaurant’s menu. (Photo: Public Domain/New York Public Library)

In 2005, Guinness World Records recognized Spiller’s collection of Chinese restaurant menus as the largest of its kind, but that was back when it was only 5,000 menus strong. Afterward, he doubled his haul. 

This is not the only collection of restaurant menus in existence; both the New York Public Library and the Los Angeles Public Library have extensive menu troves. 

For Harley Spiller, his extraordinary collection was his ticket into the history books–albeit a sweet and sour one. “I’m thrilled (the collection) has such energetic and capable new owners, but it is sad to lose them,” the 56-year-old collector told the Toronto Star

A dinner menu from the 1850s for Astor House in New York City, from the Butolph collection of menus. (Photo: Public Domain/New York Public Library)

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