Monday, June 4, 2012

Apple #584: Blue Plate Special

I have a request!  Regular Daily Apple reader Jamiroquai* wants to know: why is the plate in the blue plate special blue?

Excellent question!  My hunch is that whoever invented the blue plate special first served it on a plate that was blue.  Let's see what the facts say.

This would be a good example of a blue plate special, if the plate were actually blue, and if it were sold by a restaurant. It's ham steak, mashed potatoes with butter, and green peas, all on one plate.
(Photo from Feasting in the Skagit foodshed)

This was a good deal down at the Y.
(Image from The Phrase Finder)

  • This topic is another instance when no one is quite sure when or how this bit of Americana first emerged. People re-tell the same story, but they all say it's their best guess, not at all definitive. But they tell the story anyway.
  • Never fear, I will tell it, too.  But first, I need to tell you something about the information I found: it's a bit suspect.

Questionable Sources
  • A couple of sources say they consulted the Oxford English Dictionary to find out when the phrase "blue plate special" first appeared in print.  I consulted my own OED (perhaps my favorite reference work of all time), but I found no entry or sub-entry for "blue plate."  
  • I looked under blue as well as plate. I even checked the Additions and Emendations and the List of Spurious Words sections in the back. Nothing doing.  
  • Under blue, the entries go from blue-nose (purple potato grown in Nova Scotia; or, a nickname for someone from Nova Scotia) to bluer to blue ribbon.  No blue plate.
  • I scanned 7 1/2 columns' worth of definitions for plate, none of which were blue.  
  • (I learned a lot about plates, though. The meaning of "plate" as in the flat tableware from which we eat our food and the other meanings of "plate" as in plated metal such as plates of armor or any metal plate used for any purpose all come from the same place. Because the plates from which food was eaten initially were made of metal. In fact, all those various types of plates including the eating kind used to be made in the same way, by flattening a piece of metal and making it round.)

Plate armor and eating plates come from the same place! Etymologically and historically speaking, that is.
(Image from Historical Romance Out of the Closet)

  • I thought, maybe those sites meant the Concise Oxford Dictionary, so I checked my copy of that too.  No blue plate there, either.
  • Maybe these folks have a different edition of the OED. They do sound an awful lot like the OED: "The first example in the big Oxford English Dictionary is from a book by Sinclair Lewis dated 1945, but it is also the title of a story by Damon Runyon published in 1934." So maybe these people have a more recent version than mine.
  • (Another source says their OED refers to the Merriam-Webster dictionary as its source, which I find extremely hard to believe.)
  • So.  Some of these people who refer to the OED also tell this story about the origin of the blue plate special.  Therefore, I suggest you take this story with a huge grain of salt. Maybe a whole shakerful.

The Story
  • Like any good tale that floats free of any definitive historical documentation (though parts of it are verifiable), it's told differently depending on who tells it.  So I'll consolidate the tales to give you the best, most detailed version.
  • Once upon a time, somewhere around the 1870s (or was it the 1890s?) there was a man named Fred Harvey who owned a series of restaurants situated at various stops along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway 
  • (That railway name sounds like it's two lines joined together, but it's actually one. It started out connecting Atchison and Topeka but then struck out west for Santa Fe, following the old Santa Fe trading route. Over time, more miles of track were added until eventually it stretched from Chicago west to San Francisco and Los Angeles and south down to Galveston, TX as well as Guaymas and Queratero in Mexico.)

Map of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway line in 1891.  By 1883, Harvey had restaurants at 17 stops along the railroad line. One, the El Tovar at the Grand Canyon is reportedly still in operation.
(Map from the MARDOS Memorial Library, where you can find a larger and easier to read version)

  •  This was the age of the Pullman cars, when everyone was all about efficiency. Fred Harvey was no different. His restaurants were clean, orderly, and efficient.  Before he came along, it was hard to find a decent place to get a meal along that train line, so customers were glad of his restaurants.
  • He was an Englishman who had worked in fine dining in the East before deciding to open his own restaurants in the West. His first restaurant was in the depot in Topeka. He provided top-quality food served on fine linens with English silver. He even lured away one of the top chefs from the Palmer House in Chicago. People traveling through the rough-and-tumble West appreciated this step up in quality.
  • He also hired and trained a cadre of women he called "Harvey Girls" who worked in his restaurants. They stayed in dormitories nearby and were captained by house mothers who kept curfew and house rules.
  • They were required to wear black uniforms with black shoes and stockings and hairnets and they were not allowed to wear make-up. But since Mr. Harvey advertised that he wanted women ages 18-30 who must be attractive, the male travelers found the wait staff another reason to eat in his restaurants. One rail man said "The Harvey House was not only a good place to eat; it was the Cupid of the Rails."
Harvey Girls, I'm guessing around the 1920s or so. Still wearing the black, ankle-length uniforms and white aprons as required.
(Photo from Paradise7's HubPage)

  • Judy Garland's character is on her way West to become a mail-order bride, but she changes her mind and decides to become a Harvey Girl instead. Angela Lansbury is in it too.  That's right, before she was Jessica Fletcher, of Murder, She Wrote, she played a "low-down saloon singer."
  • I'm wandering far afield, here. OK, I want you to remember the part about how the Harvey restaurants were considered beacons of quality and good taste. Because it is in his restaurants that the blue plate special supposedly originated.
  • At some point (1872? 1892?) Harvey decided to add an item to the menu that privileged efficiency.  The deal was, he allowed his chefs to look at whatever they'd gotten a lot of that day in terms of meat and vegetables, and they could make up one plate that included the main course and the side vegetable, all for one price. The customer couldn't choose a different side, but they'd get a reduced price, and they'd get the whole plate more quickly than if they ordered one main course and a separate side.
  • It's a pretty ingenious tactic because it benefits the economics of the restaurant and the customer both. So very quickly, the idea caught on and became popular at restaurants across the country.
  • Ah, Jamiroquai asks, but how did it get its name?  Where did the blue come in? Here, again, I must resort to speculation.
  • The story goes that Harvey served his food on plates that were made to look like the traditional blue, Willow-patterned Wedgwood dishes. But here, the story sort of falls apart because if all his dishes were blue and of the same pattern, how would the special be distinguished from the other items on offer? Unless only the special was available on any given day?
  • Now here comes my second question. This is what the blue Willow-patterned Wedgwood plates look like:
That weird Dr. Seuss-like tree is actually a Chinese willow, for which the pattern is named. Plates with this pattern were imported from China into England and considered very posh. Mr. Harvey, and Englishman, might have used plates like these in his restaurants.
(Photo from the Willow Pattern Story)

  • But an additional wrinkle here is that some definitions say that the plate was not only blue, but it was also divided into compartments to contain each course.
  • So what I'm thinking is maybe the plates were actually those blue-speckled tin plates that people used to have out West.

Blue and white speckled tin plate. This is actually a pan for making corn bread. But it sure looks like it would do a good job of serving up a main course and a side dish at the same time.
(Photo and plate available from Miss Kizzy's Graceful Fashions)

  • I admit, I'm going by what I've seen on TV and in Westerns, but don't they try to make those things at least fairly historically accurate?  And didn't I see, in some movie or other, some hapless cowboy sitting by the campfire scooping up beans from a blue plate that was divided into compartments?
See? Wikipedia's entry about blue plate specials includes this divided blue plate, which looks a whole lot more like the speckled tin than the Wedgwood. If Wikipedia is any authority, that is.
(Photo from Wikipedia)

If someone could unearth a menu from one of those old Harvey restaurants and also dinner a plate from there, we would perhaps solve these persistent questions for once and for all.

*Not his real name. Whenever possible, I protect the innocent Daily Apple reader.

Michael Quinion, World Wide Words, Blue-Plate Special 
The Phrase Finder, Blue-plate special
The Word Detective, Blue Plate Special 
The Hidden History of Bridgeport, The Blue Plate Special Unveiled
Encyclopedia Britannica, Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company
History Hoydens, The Harvey Girls: Women Who Tamed the Wild Frontier
Paradise7, HubPages, The Harvey Girls, a Slice of American History
A Harvey House Home Page
IMDb, The Harvey Girls


  1. Sounds like a visit to the Fred Harvey Company Archives at Northern Arizona University is in order.

  2. Favorite line: "If Wikipedia is any authority, that is."

  3. I was talking to a friend about this exactly, and I cannot believe that not one blue plate is left in the world! I mean, these things usually pop up on eBay or whatever but how could they all have just disappeared? We were wondering what material the famous blue plates were made of.... it's the first time I've ever Googled something and not found an answer. Yours came the closest.... thanks!


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