Think those take-out menus are destined for the garbage? Think again! One man’s 40-year-old collection of Chinese take-out menus, which was donated to a university, is valued at $40,000. If you’re into collecting for the long haul this is a surefire way to surmount a hefty collection.
The collection is impressive, amounting to almost a thousand pounds of historical material dating back over hundred years. So how did such a collection begin? Harley Spiller was broke in his 20s and became more broke when he moved to Manhattan in 1981 (nothing’s really changed has it?). Renting a room in his friend’s apartment, he had no extra cash to do anything fun, but after receiving a Chinese menu underneath their apartment door (in NYC deliverymen commonly stuff menus into nearby apartment doors), a light went off. Living on a budget, he’d walk around picking up the free menus in front of the restaurants and reading them like magazines, “they were cheaper than a subscription to the Times,” stated Spiller.
Not long after collecting a lot of menus, he noted their intrinsic value. The take-out menus were historical artifacts representing how immigrant populations adapted cuisine and how businesses developed (despite constraints and persecution) in America. You can see that in the menus where many 20th-century Chinese restaurants. In the early 20-century, Chinese restaurants served ham steaks and sandwiches, by the latter half of the same century customers liked spicier food, so many restaurants served less Cantonese and Mandarin and more Sichuan.
For the greater half of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, immigration from China was restricted, the only loophole, outside of working in laundry houses, was cooking in Chinese restaurants. By working in Chinese restaurants employees were eligible to get merchant visas, which allowed them to travel to and from China to see family.
After running dry on resources, Spiller’s collection expanded thanks to online marketplaces and friends traveling to various places. By the late 2010s, his collection was valued at $40,000. Even with such a high price tag, Spiller ended up donating the collection to the University of Toronto. The reason? Spiller said he had a lot of buyers, but they wanted to break up the collection, selecting only some of the rarest menus, but the university wanted the whole collection. Better yet, after years of cataloging and research, the University of Toronto finally electronically filed all of the menus which are available for free to the public.
So do you think you’d be able to make a take-out menu collection? Which cuisine would you choose?SKM: below-content placeholder