Harley Spiller Menu Collection

Date Range: 18792009
Survey Conducted: Mon, 2009-03-16
Creator: Spiller, Harley (1960-)

History: Harley Spiller (1960- ) moved to New York after college in 1981 to pursue a career in the museum field. A native of Buffalo, NY and a graduate of Northwestern University, the self-described “meat and potatoes” Spiller was promptly introduced to the diverse cuisine of New York City. He received a job as an administrative assistant for the curatorial department of the Jewish Museum, and with his tight annual salary, found himself going to Chinatown to buy inexpensive food. According to Guinness World Records, he now holds the largest menu collection in private hands.

Spiller first began collecting Chinese menus on his nightly walks up and down the streets of the Upper West Side, where he lived. At the time, the phenomenon of “menuing”—in which restaurants mass-printed take-out menus for delivery—was beginning in the city and Spiller, an English major, took advantage of this surplus of menus as free and easily accessible reading materials. When Spiller moved to a new apartment on New York Avenue, Manhattan, he continued his walks and collecting at what he called “bullet-proof” restaurants, eventually amassing a substantial stack of take-out menus. As people heard about his collection, they gifted menus from their travels to him. The biggest single donor of his collection is Dr. Jacqueline M. Newman, Queens College professor and lifetime collector of Chinese cookbooks who donated her collection to Stony Brook University. Spiller has also grown his collection through purchases on eBay, particularly acquiring dine-in menus. Prompted by inquiries from museums wishing to borrow items, he also started to collect artifacts and ephemera relating to Chinese restaurants and cookery.

Summary: The Harley Spiller Menu Collection totals 40 linear feet and consists of more than 10,000 items. Menus from Chinese restaurants comprise about three-quarters of the collection. These span in date from 1981 to 2009 and about 1000 of the menus predate 1960. There are some older menus in the collection, including a menu used at a luncheon with Li Hongzhang at Tiffin in 1879, which Spiller considers to be the oldest of his menus. Most menus are 11×17 broadsheets or the 8 1/2x 11 folded kinds, but there are also some dine-in menus, including one from the famous Snake Restaurant in Guangzhou, China. Within the collection are menus from every decade, menus from all 50 states, and 3 linear feet of international menus. Included also are photocopies Spiller made of Chinese restaurant menus contained in other collections at Hunter College and the New York Academy of Medicine. In addition to menus, the collection also contains books, magazines, ephemera, artifacts, correspondence, postcards, and photographs. Spiller’s book and magazine collection consists of 10 contemporary books pertaining to Chinese food and 4 linear feet of Flavor and Fortune magazines, some containing articles that Spiller authored. There are also articles and other press materials about Spiller and his collections, such as pieces in the Guinness World Records, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and Offbeat Almanac. Ephemera includes flyers and pamphlets containing information about a variety of topics relating to Chinese cookery, including chopsticks, fortune cookies, dim sum, kosher Chinese food. The artifacts in the collection consists of food packaging such as cans and take-out boxes (some with Spanish labels); restaurant breakables such as ceramics mugs, ash trays, and lidded tea cups; 8-foot chopsticks; plastic take-out bags with restaurant logos; and children’s toys, specifically plastic versions of Chinese food. There is correspondence between museums and individuals regarding his collection as well as documentation of the five exhibitions that have featured items from the collection. There is also correspondence between Spiller and Joyce Chen, a Chinese chef, restaurateur, and entrepreneur credited with popularizing Mandarin Chinese food in the United States in the 1970s. Postcards of Chinese restaurants and about 1000 digital photographs of Chinese food Spiller or friends have taken over the course of their travels also comprise the collection.

Total Size: 40 linear feet and digital photographs
APA-related Size: 40 linear feet and digital photographs
Languages of materials: English, Chinese, and Spanish
Arrangement: other
Location: Private residence
Bibliographic Control: inventory
Conditions Governing Access: Available by appointment only. Researchers wishing to view materials must contact Harley Spiller: hspiller@nyc.rr.com

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