Vintage Boston Menus Are Part of the New York Public Library’s Digital Collection

You can help geotag and transcribe them to make the archive easier to search.

The cover of the Thanksgiving menu at Quincy House from 1899. / Image via the New York Public Library

The cover of the Thanksgiving menu at Quincy House from 1899. / Image via New York Public Library Digital Collections

The New York Public Library has a massive digital archive—more than 670,000 items—that was recently bolstered by a trove of archival images of Boston. Yesterday, the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog noted it also includes a breadth of restaurant and event menus from around the globe.

We shouldn’t be surprised that among the 17,500-plus documents are several dozen once served in Massachusetts.

Ever wonder what boiled cusk in cream sauce cost at Boston’s famed Parker House in 1865? Forty cents.

If you were a guest then, perhaps stewed eels, potted pigeons, or mutton cutlets in tomato sauce sounded good to you. There are also numerous options that wouldn’t be out of place at today’s Omni Parker House, which was built on the site in 1927: Roast chicken and lamb, lobster salad, assorted pickles, corned beef, its famous Boston cream pie. But in 1945, the Parker House wasn’t offering its signature dessert, at least by name on the luncheon menu.

Parker House Boston

A 1945 menu from the Parker House. / Photo via New York Public Library Digital Collections

The archive also shows the Thanksgiving spread offered at the Quincy House in 1899—Vermont turkey with chestnut, dressing, and cranberry sauce; an August 1890 dinner menu from the Nobscussett in Dennis, on Cape Cod—boiled salmon with peas, macaroni and cheese, apple sago pudding; and a menu from the days when a New York sirloin was just $7 at the historic Locke-Ober (1955).

And there are also some intriguing one-offs. Gynecologists visiting the area in 1889 supped on seafood like Blue Point oysters and Newport sole, and game birds—owl, anyone?—during a conference hosted by the Obstetrical Society of Boston at Taft’s Hotel.

Menu excepts from an at Taft's Hotel. / Photo via New York Public Library Digital Collections

Menu excepts from an 1899 dinner at Taft’s Hotel. / Photo via New York Public Library Digital Collections

The NYPL’s Rare Book Division houses 45,000 different menus, dating from the 1840s through the 2000s. But only about a quarter are online. In 2011, the NYPL launched a transcription project called What’s On the Menu?, enlisting the public’s help to parse through the pixels to make the menu items and prices searchable.

There are still at least 1,000 digital menus that have yet to be transcribed, but there’s apparently a backlog at the NYPL’s scanner. While there are currently no new menus to rewrite, there are several that need review, and there’s also an ongoing geotagging project you could help with, if you’re so inclined.

The archive is somewhat searchable by place—”Boston” and “Massachusetts” both yield dozens of hits, and the latest dataset is downloadable—but some restaurant names, like Chicago’s Boston Oyster House, throw off the results.

History buffs, chefs, researchers, novelists, screenwriters, and everyday foodies will delight in tucking into the feast of historical menus.