My second In Conversation With….. couldn’t be more different from the first. That is what I love about the world of tea towels; as a buyer, collector and lover of tea towels, I try and look for the differences, the unique qualities. I don’t want all my tea towels to be the same. What Stuart Gardiner and Love Menu Art have in common is their commitment to only producing quality goods and producing goods that reflect their own passion – in the case of Stuart Gardiner, it is Infographics and Typography and, in the case of Love Menu Art, it is vintage menus. Both also share the fact that they are already represented in the Collections of the Virtual Tea Towel Museum (because I love the work of both of them). There the similarity probably ends! I ‘met’ Love Menu Art in the early days of writing my Tea Towel Blog; they were one of my first followers on Twitter. Love Menu Art is based in the United States, New York to be precise and they contacted me about prices of tea towels in England and what I would be prepared to pay because they were exhibiting at the Renegrade Craft Fair in London. As I said at the time, there is no easy answer to that question! So here is what Love Menu Art has to say about their business and their tea towels:
“Hi. I am another Barbara and co-founder of Love Menu Art with my husband Eugen. Love Menu Art was founded about four years ago, in the United States, when we found some wonderful menus online – in universities and in libraries – marvelled at the images and stories behind them and wondered why no-one was doing anything to bring this part of America’s social history, and the rest of the world’s, back to life.
I knew that Love Menu Art was originally called Cool Culinaria; I asked Barbara about the change of name: “Always fond of the Ronseal advert……we wanted a name that ‘does what it says on the tin’ – hence Love Menu Art.
Menu covers were important, decades ago, as marketing tools for bars, restaurants and hotels. Many were offered as take-home souvenirs or customers could write a friend or relative’s name and address on the back and the restaurant or bar would pay the postage. This is often how word about any particular establishment got around – long before anyone had heard about the concept of social media (or TripAdvisor). So, it was important to have an eye-catching image. Each restaurateur had his own taste in artwork. Often they employed commercial artists, or talented customers, and let them eat free.
One of the most interesting periods for us is pre-Prohibition when bars had to change into Fountain Rooms, serving sodas and after the repeal of Prohibition, when there was a celebratory nature in the air – champagne bottles were depicted as rockets, poems were written….
People kept these menus perhaps because it reminded them of a special evening or because, like us, they enjoyed the artwork. Over the decades, they (the menus) have been thrown out or have found their way into the hands of private collectors and institutions such as libraries and universities. The New York Public Library has about 18,000 menus available to look at online, mostly from the 19th and early 20th Century. Other libraries around the United States post some images online but a lot sit in boxes and are not seen. We track them down, scan them at high resolution and digitally repair the wear and tear of age. Some might be torn, for example, or have coffee or water stains on them. Then we give them a new lease of life as archival prints and tea towels (Love Menu Art’s website uses the term ‘dish towel’).
We have 20 tea towels at present with images ranging from 1880s to 1970s. We sell online, at Art and Craft Fairs and street markets. We also sell in retail. Our towels are meant to be used! (And I am glad to hear it!). They are 100% cotton. They are printed for us in India, using Swiss technology. They won’t lose their colour because they are pre-washed. Many of our customers like to display them instead. Some frame them. We’re happy with this – but they are meant to be used. They are very absorbent.
We are proud to report that we have contributed to the revival of interest in menu art in the United States and the United Kingdom. It is really lovely to see the reactions on people’s faces when they look at this diverse and imaginative work and hear the history behind it. Young people, especially, are fascinated. We have many repeat customers.
In the future, we plan to continue our mission to revive vintage menu artwork and to keep putting menu covers before new audiences.” I asked Barbara what her favourite tea towel was and she sent me this picture with the caption: ‘Champagne Menu Tea Towel: an image from the last decade of 19th Century from the Lou Greenstein Collection’.
It is certainly worth looking at the Love Menu Art website (I have been distracted there on a number of occasions) where they talk about working “with a select group of private collectors who share our passion for vintage menu art and who have generously opened their collections to us”. This includes Henry Voigt, Culinary Institute of America, Herbert Beasley, Lou Greenstein, Harley Spiller, Brad Holden Seattle Menu Collection and the Miss Buttolph British Library Collection.
I want to thank Barbara for sharing the story of Love Menu Art; it reminds me how fascinating the work is and that this is such a significant part of American social history although I do note there are menus from all over the world. My two tea towels, which I have blogged about, are from (a) Buckingham Palace menu in 1902 for a dinner for the Jocket Club and (b) a menu from Cafe de Paris in Buenos Aires in 1888. Both were fascinating to research and are representative of some of their other tea towels.