Thursday, June 28, 2012

Apple #592: A Whole Lotta Blues

I thought I'd finish up my series of blue entries with a whole bunch of blue things, with a few facts about each. Sort of like the finale at a fireworks show.

Blue Suede Shoes

(Photo from some site on Etsy that isn't loading)

  • We all know Elvis Presley performed the song, but Carl Perkins is the guy who wrote it. He got the idea from Johnny Cash.
  • Cash told Perkins about an Air Force sergeant he used to know was rather particular about his appearance. He used to say, jokingly, "Just don't step on my blue suede shoes!" The reason this was a joke was because he'd be wearing his Air Force uniform at the time, with his regulation-issued shoes.
  • Cash thought this was a good line for a song, but Perkins didn't have any idea what to do with it. Not long afterward, he was performing at a dance when he heard a boy tell the girl he was dancing with, "Uh-uh! Don't step on my blue suedes!" He thought it was pretty incredible that the boy would care more about his shoes than the girl, and that's what made the song start to click in his head.

Baby Blues

 "I was shakin' in my shoes whenever she flashed those baby blues"

Blue eyes of a newborn
(Photo from

  • The phrase comes from the fact that a lot of Caucasian babies are born with blue eyes. It's supposed to suggest wide-eyed innocence, as innocent as a newborn babe.
  • When people say that all babies are born with blue eyes, they are exaggerating. Some percentage of Caucasian babies are, but not every baby is born with blue eyes.
  • Some babies' blue eyes will change to a different color as the babies get a little older. This is because the melanin doesn't kick in until it's exposed to ultraviolet light.
  • Usually, after about 6 to 9 months, you'll notice a baby's eye color will have started to change.
  • Some babies' eyes will continue to change for as long as three years.  In about 10% of babies born with blue eyes, it may take even as long as adulthood until their eyes have settled on their final color.


Kentucky bluegrass, a.k.a. Poa pratensis. Its tendency toward lushness is what makes this a favorite "barefoot grass."
(Photo from Power Seeds Inc.)

  • Bluegrass the music,is named for bluegrass the plant, which has a blue-ish tinge and grows in Kentucky.
  • Naturally, you'd think that Kentucky Bluegrass the plant would be native to Kentucky. Actually, it's originally from all over the place: almost all of Europe, northern Asia, and the mountains of Algeria and Morocco.
  • If you're just starting a lawn of bluegrass, don't mow it until it gets higher than 2 inches. And going forward, it's best not to mow it any shorter that 2 inches.

Blue Humor

The Aristocrats may be the quintessential bluest joke. Here's Gilbert Gottfried, after telling it at a friar's roast not  long after 9/11.
(Photo from Youdopia NSFW)

  • Jokes that involve bad language or sexual or vulgar or crude situations are typically referred to as "blue humor."
  • A lot of people say that this phrase comes from another phrase, "blue laws," which were laws going as far back as the 17th century that punished bad language, lying, swearing, public drunkenness, etc. In other words, laws that governed moral behavior. That much of the origin of "blue humor" seems to be true.
  • However, people go on to say that the phrase "blue laws" comes from the fact that the laws were printed on blue paper.  This part is not true.
  • The experts can't say for 100% certain, but they're reasonably sure that "blue laws" is related to the word "bluenose."
  • A bluenose is a very rigidly moral person, presumably one who would write laws about what you can and cannot say in public.


Blueprints are architectural or other detailed drawings that have a blue background and the text and lines are in white.
(Photo from Twins Daily)

  • Blueprints, as you'd expect, are so named because they are blue.  
  • The paper doesn't start out to be blue, but it turns out that way as a result of the process by which the designs are printed on the paper.
  • Technically, a blueprint is called a cyanotype. Making a cyanotype is a lot like developing a photograph. The process uses iron compounds, which start out to be green, but once they're exposed to UV light, they turn blue.
  • (Sort of the opposite of baby's eye color thing then.)
  • If you want to know more about how to make a cyanotype, a site called Alternative Photography has the instructions.

Blue Whales

The blue whale. Everything about it is superlative.
(Photo from Wonderful Whales)

  • Blue whales are the largest mammals on Earth.
  • They can get to be 100 feet long and weigh some 200 tons.
  • Here's a weird tidbit: their tongues, alone, can weigh as much as an elephant. (I don't know who's going around weighing blue whale tongues, but I believe this assertion)
  • They eat anywhere from 4 to 8 tons -- tons -- of krill per day.
  • Baleen, the stuff over their mouths that they use to filter in food, is made of stuff very like our fingernails.
  • They're also among the loudest animals on the planet. Their sounds are at very low frequencies, but they're so loud, other blue whales can hear them up to 1,000 miles away.
So many things to know about blue whales, I may just have to do a separate entry about them.

And now, with this last hurrah, I must tell you that I'm going on vacation.  Please of course browse around in the meantime.  With 591 other entries to choose from, I'm sure you'll find something to interest you.  See you in a couple of weeks!

Want more blue things? How about bluebirds , blueberries, Steely Dan's "Deacon Blues," plus of course the entries from this series: blue-footed booby, blue jeans, bleu cheese, and the ever-popular blue-plate special

Squidoo, Elvis Songs: Blue Suede Shoes
Songfacts, Blue Suede Shoes by Carl Perkins
Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Blue Suede Shoes: Chronology of a Hit
Anne Marie Helmenstine PhD,, Why Are Babies Born with Blue Eyes?
What to Expect, Baby's Eye Color
Texas A&M System, Aggie Horticulture, Kentucky Bluegrass, Blue Laws
Patrick Bromley,, Blue Humor, blueprint
Alternative Photography, Cyanotype - the classic process
National, Blue Whale
Enchanted Learning, Blue Whale, the Loudest Animal on Earth 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Apple #590: Why are Blue Jeans Blue?

Continuing my theme of blue-related topics (later historians will refer to this as my blue period), instead of reaching for some exotic blue thing, i.e., the blue-footed booby of last week's entry, I thought, what about some common thing that we take for granted as being blue?  Like blue jeans?  Why are they blue, anyway?

That's a lotta jeans, and they're all blue.
(Photo from Zoe's Sketch Book)

  • The short answer is:
    • 1. because blue was a popular color when jeans were invented, and 
    • 2. cotton is difficult to dye, but for whatever reason, it doesn't mind indigo.
  • But of course, you know me.  There's more to the story than that, and I can't let it go without telling you the rest.

How Blue Jeans Were Invented
  • OK, so Levi Strauss owned a dry goods store (that means he sold a lot of clothing and fabrics and textiles).  He was originally from Germany, grew up in New York, then moved out to San Francisco to sell stuff to the miners and scads of people going West for the Gold Rush.
  • One of Strauss's customers was a tailor from Reno, Jacob Davis. He was taking Strauss's fabrics and turning them into horse blankets and tents and selling those. 
  • He, too, was born in Europe -- Latvia, to be precise -- then moved with his family to New York, then headed West. This business about both guys being from Europe is important; you'll see why in a bit.  
  • Davis's customers told him their pants kept getting ripped, especially at the pockets, while they were working.  One day, while using rivets on horse blankets, Davis thought he'd try using rivets on his work pants to keep the pockets from getting ripped.  He made some pants like that, and they were a hit with his customers.

Jacob Davis (born Jacob Youphes, from Latvia) came up with the idea for riveted work pants.

Levi Strauss (born Loeb Strauss, from Germany) sold Davis the fabric and had the money to pay for the patent.
(Photos from The Great Idea Finder)

  • Davis wrote to Strauss in San Francisco about his idea, Strauss said it sounded good to him, and he agreed to help Davis file the patent.  The key feature of the pants was that they were like overalls except without the bib-like top -- for many years they were referred to as "waist overalls" -- and they had rivets which were sturdier at holding the garment together.
  • The first pairs of jeans came in two styles, blue denim and brown cotton "duck," which was another kind of sturdy fabric.  The duck never got as soft as the denim so that fell out of favor rather quickly.
  • Denim had been around for a long time -- the history of denim is its own interesting story which I won't get into here -- and Strauss and Davis dyed their denim blue because, as I said, cotton (which is what denim is made of) is difficult to dye, but indigo works with it quite well.  So it was one of the easier choices of colors for denim.
  • Specifically, they used indigo to dye their denim. And as it happens, indigo had been very highly sought-after for a long time.  For centuries, actually.  

Europeans Sure do Love that Indigo
  • Indigo dye comes from the indigo plant, which is a flowering shrub.  The precise name of the plant varies a little depending on where it's grown and what species it is.  There's indigo from India, and indigo from Africa, and another type of indigo from the tropical Americas.
This is the Indigofera tinctoria, which is the type of indigo that grows in India.
(Photo from the Prelude Medicinal Plants Database)

This is Indigofera arrecta, which is the species of indigo that grows in Africa. I couldn't find a photo of this species with flowers, but you can see the difference in the leaf shape. 
(Photo by Bart Wursten, Flora of Zimbabwe)

  • There's also another plant entirely grown in Europe, called woad, which also produces a blue color. It's woad that the Celts used to paint themselves blue, by the way.  Robin Hood's Saxon green was made by combining woad and a yellow dye that came from wild mignonette. But woad's blue is not the same as indigo's blue. Even though Queen Elizabeth I banned indigo in an effort to support the use of woad at home, people still wanted their indigo.
  • For a long time, the only place where Europeans could get indigo was from India.  I'm talking the 1400s now.  People had to sail those dangerous, long-ass freakin' trade routes to India and back to get indigo to Europe and dye their clothes with it.  So you had to be pretty rich to have any garments colored blue, which meant that for a long time way back then, only royalty wore indigo.
  • (Which means, by the way, if anyone gives you guff for wearing blue jeans, you could always retort, "Once upon a time, kings would have killed to be able to wear blue pants like these.")
  • By the late 1500s, the Europeans just had to have their indigo, so folks in India started growing the plants like mad.  There was something of a boom in India over indigo, but for some people that was a bad thing.  Plantations developed and so did slavery.
  • By the 1700s, Europeans had become totally hooked on their indigo, but they were sick of sailing all the way to India to get it. So they started coming up with other ways to get their indigo.  So the Spanish colonists began growing it in Central America and in Louisiana.  British colonists started growing it in the early US colonies. 
    • Actually, the first indigo crop in today's US was started in South Carolina by a 16 year-old girl, Eliza Lucas Pinckney. After her mother died and her father went to Antigua to become governor there, she took over her father's homestead and decided to start growing indigo. Her first two attempts failed but the third one worked. Soon indigo exports from South Carolina took off like wildfire.
    • Indigo might have been the king crop of the south by the time of the Civil War, if the Revolutionary War hadn't happened and people hadn't needed rice more.  Then the cotton gin was invented, which made it even easier to convert cotton from crop to thread, so by that time, if anyone was still growing indigo in the south, they switched to cotton.
  • If the south could have grown the two together, indigo and cotton, things might have turned out very differently for them.  That and if they hadn't gotten into the whole nasty slavery thing.

Detail from a map of the Parish of St. Stephen in Craven County, showing slave laborers harvesting and drying indigo on a plantation.
(Map from Duke University's Special Collections Library section, Slave Voices)

Indigo and Slave Labor
  • Now, when I say the "colonists started growing indigo," what I mean is they had the idea to do it, and they bought the stuff needed to get the crop going, but the people who did the actual work were slaves.  
  • In the Central Americas, it was the native peoples.  Strangely, they kept getting sick and dying from working with the indigo. (Dying while dyeing. It's a pun, but it's not funny.) The Spanish thought, hey, those black slaves from Africa might not be as frail. So they switched to African slaves.
  • Since indigo also grows in Africa, some of the African slaves already knew how to work with it. So they made their own improvements to the cultivation of indigo, and they also improved dyeing methods. But they kept getting sick and dying, too. 
  • As far as I can tell, it wasn't the plants themselves that were making people sick. To get from a leaf or a flower of the indigo plant into a dye that will adhere to a fabric, you have to extract the color from the plant, and then you have to make it water-soluble.  In the process of doing that, at one stage you get something called indigo yellow. It is thought that the indigo yellow by-product is probably the thing that was toxic.
This woman in Thailand is working with natural indigo. Knowing how many people died back in the day from using natural indigo, this photo makes me very nervous.
(Photo from Tammachat Natural Textiles)

  • So in the big picture of indigo, it was becoming more widely available as it was being grown in more places. But it was the Europeans who wanted it and who had the money to pay for it.  
  • So the initial reason for why Strauss & Davis dyed their denim blue is probably because, having worked for years with textiles, they would have known that cotton doesn't mind being blue.  So blue would have been an easy choice, from a manufacturing standpoint.
  • But I also think their origins in Europe have something to do with it.  Because they came from a place where people really wanted to have clothes and garments dyed blue. 
  • So even though Strauss & Davis's work pants were intended for people who were most definitely not rich, they might have assumed that people would want very much to have blue pants. As it turns out, they were right.

From Natural to Synthetic
  • But the fact that people were getting sick and dying from working with indigo, that was kind of a problem. And it was also a problem that the supply of indigo just couldn't keep up with demand.  So some chemists started to figure out how they could make a synthetic indigo.
  • Most of the advanced chemistry at the time was being done in Germany (this is why so many of our chemical and pharmaceutical companies today are based in Germany or have German names). One German chemist named -- get this -- Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Adolf von Baeyer started working on figuring out how to make a synthetic indigo.  That was in 1865.  By 1880, he'd found the answer.

How indigo was synthesized in the 1900s, beginning with naphthalene and using potassium permanganate as the oxidant. 

How indigo is usually synthesized today, starting with benzene and using the now much less expensive sodium.
(Diagrams from Backyard Chemistry)

  • Strauss & Davis patented their waist overalls / blue jeans in 1873. So their blue jeans came out right when the chemists were trying to solve the indigo problem.  It's a total coincidence that shortly after those waist overalls started taking off that a synthetic indigo was found.
  • It took a while before people started buying synthetic indigo.  People didn't believe it was possible to have a synthetic indigo, for one thing, and for another, the molecule looks exactly the same as natural indigo. Some chemists have a hard time telling them apart. But it was the low price and the "superior purity" of the synthetic indigo that finally convinced people en masse that they could get the same or better results from the synthetic stuff.
  • By 1913, BASF, the company for whom Baeyer worked, had sold 4,900 tons of indigo.  That's a lot of blue.  
  • While the first blue jeans were almost certainly made with natural indigo, at some point in the next 40 years or so, Levis Strauss blue jeans were made with synthetic indigo and have been ever since.
  • Today, synthetic indigo is now the most-produced textile dye in the world, largely because of the popularity of blue jeans. In 2002, 17,000 tons of synthetic indigo were manufactured worldwide.

Jeans from Japan, dyed with natural indigo on the left and right, and synthetic in the middle. You can see that the blue of the synthetic is different from the natural, but the two natural indigos also differ from each other.
(Photo by superbored at superfuture)

The Hues of those Blues
  • About the fading.  Natural indigo fades naturally over time.  So it makes sense that synthetic indigo, which looks and acts a lot like the natural stuff, would do the same.
  • Also, the results of dyeing with natural indigo can vary considerably from one batch to the next, depending on humidity, temperature, and so on.  
  • When dyeing with natural indigo, when the dye is watery and you're sloshing the pants around in the vat, it actually has a greenish-yellow color.  You hang up the pants to dry, during which time oxidation takes place, and they turn blue. (As for that photo above in which the wet dye is blue, all I can think is that the dye was exposed to the air long enough that it turned blue even while it was wet.)
  • At any point in the process -- how the dye is extracted, whether it came from an indigo plant grown in India or in Africa or in Central America, how the vat is mixed, how humid it was that day, how sunny it was when the pants dried -- any of those things can have variables, which means the blue color on the pants can be different from one batch to the next.  
  • So it's perfectly in keeping with the characteristics of natural indigo that our synthetically-dyed blue jeans vary in shade from one pair to the next, and that they fade.
Blue jeans are blue, but there are all sorts of shades and hues of blue.
(Photo from A History of American Technology)

Coda in India
  • Remember all those slaves in India who were working on the indigo plantations?  Well, when synthetic indigo became popular, the bottom fell out of the natural indigo market.  Growers in India couldn't get people to buy as much of their indigo as they used to.  So the plantation owners (many of whom were British) started putting the squeeze on their slaves/indentured servants to grow more indigo and to give up a bigger percentage of their yield to the growers.
  • This put a big hurt on a lot of people who were already hurting.  The villages where the workers lived were rife with horrible conditions. At the historic Champaran protest in 1917, the majority of the thousands who turned out to protest were indigo growers. It was during this protest that Gandhi made his first public statement advocating non-violent resistance.  
  • After that protest, Gandhi interviewed over 8,000 indigo workers and published a scathing report about how they had been exploited.  As a result of that report, the bill that was passed reforming agrarian practices in India was part of the beginning of India's victory for independence.
I'm not sure when this photo was taken, but this may have been what the Champaran protest in 1917 looked like.
(Photo from

  • Baeyer won the Nobel for Chemistry in 1905, and his discovery of synthetic indigo was one of the reasons he was awarded the prize.   I don't think the Nobel committee had any idea of the ultimately positive effect his synthetic indigo would have on so many people around the world.

Natural indigo-dyed jeans are becoming popular again, especially in Japan (which has its own history with indigo), which is where these were made. You can buy a pair of these Oni Denim Awa Shoai of your very own for only $685.00. 
(Photo from blue in green)

The moral here seems to be that just because it's got the word "natural" in front of it, that doesn't necessarily mean it's better.

The Great Idea Finder, Blue Jeans History, This Day in History, May 20, 1873: Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis receive patent for blue jeans
BASF, The Chemical Reporter, What makes blue-jeans blue? podcast
The Straight Dope Message Board, Why are blue jeans blue?
Jean M. West, Slavery in America, The Devil's Blue Dye: Indigo and Slavery
superfuture, supertalk, natural versus synthetic indigo
UCLA, Plants and Civilization, Economic Botany, Woad is Me (Isatis)
University of New Brunswick, Outreach Site for the Department of Chemistry, The history of indigo
Plant Cultures, Indigo - history
Sarah Leopold, Sewanee University, Chemistry & Art, A Brief History of Indigo in the United States

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Apple #589: Blue-Footed Booby

Since my previous entry was on blue-plate specials, I thought I'd continue the blue theme.  I wanted to talk about something unusual as well as blue, and what's more unusual than blue-footed boobies?

Two blue-footed boobies. Looks like they're having a conversation.  "What's up, Deb?" "Not much, Fred."
(Photo from NatureWorks)

  • The blue-footed boobies (Sula nebouxii) have magnificently odd feet -- very large and also blue. The male birds show off their big blue feet to the females with a series of high-stepping struts. The bigger and bluer the feet, the better the ladies like them.
The first and most essential part of the mating dance: the male picks up his feet one at a time and shows them off. He returns to this move several times throughout the dance, almost like a refrain.
(Photo from PR Log)

  • The reason the males show off their feet so much is not because foot size corresponds with the size of another male feature, but rather because their feet are important to the survival of their offspring. The blue-footed booby does not sit but rather stands on its eggs. The bigger their feet, the better able they are to keep the eggs warm, and the more viable the hatchling.
  • Granted, it's the female who does most of the standing while the male goes off to collect food. But sometimes the male stands on the eggs too while she's out fishing.  And if she finds a male with big feet, her offspring are more likely to have big feet, which means their eggs will do better, and so on down the line.
  • Males and females look very much alike. The female is slightly larger, and the male has a slightly bigger tail.
  • Their calls are more distinct. The male makes and whispery whishing noise.The female makes a kind of grunting barking sound.
  • Now that you'll be able to tell who's who in the mating videos, here's how the mating dance goes:
  1. The male picks up and puts down his big flue feet, showing them off.
  2. He dips his chest and flares his wings and slows off his feet some more.
  3. Then he presents the female with twigs and other nest materials -- which is a bit strange since they don't actually build nests
  4. The two both participate in a courtship flight (though this doesn't happen in a lot of videos I've seen)
  5. The male shows off his feet again
  6. The female joins in, picking up and putting down her feet too.
  7. They both do the chest dip and wing flare, pointing their beaks skyward. He makes his whispery whishing sound and she makes her louder groaning sound.
  8. Mating happens.
Here's how the mating dance seems to go most of the time: lots of foot-lifting for a long time, and she may finally join in, or she may not.

Below is a link to a sort of art-haus version, showing the dance taking place among several different pairs of boobies and with lots of close-ups. There are also a few shots of the boobies flying, which is very graceful, followed by landings, which are not.  The video ends in the ultimate success for one pair: copulation. Afterward, the male looks very proud of himself.

ARKive video - Blue-footed booby courtship and copulation

  • Boobies are monogamous. Which means that once the female is interested enough to do the full dance with him, the two of them will be dancing like that together until the last disco ball light goes out.
  • They don't have a particular breeding season. One site put it that they are "opportunistic breeders." Which means that when it feels right, they go for it.
  • Other things about the blue-footed booby's nesting habits are kind of disgusting. They don't build a nest but lay their eggs on the bare ground. While the birds are roosting on the nest, they crap all over the place, and the eggs become surrounded by a dried wall of booby excrement.
  • Their big feet may make them ungainly on land -- which is what apparently led Europeans to give them a name which means "stupid" or "clown" or I think this may be the best translation: "goofball" -- but they are anything but in the air.
  • They are sea-going birds, flying out to sea  in search of schools of fish. When they spot some tasty fish, sometimes from as high as 330 feet up, they fold back their wings to become streamlined as an arrow and dive into the water to spear the unsuspecting fish.
Blue-footed booby going into a dive. So streamlined and perfectly angular, it almost looks mechanical, doesn't it?
(Photo by Rob Kroenert at Endless Loop)

Photographer Tony Mills put a sequence of photos of a booby diving to create this image, showing the bird's arrow-like entry into the water. 
(You can purchase a signed, limited edition print of this image for £85 from Tony Mills' Action in Nature)

  • They hit the water at speeds up to 60 miles per hour.
  • To the envy of many an Olympic diver, though they plunge from enormous heights, they make almost no splash.
  • They especially like to eat anchovies and flying fish. Sometimes they can snag a flying fish from out of the air.
  • While each booby is so individually gifted, they hunt in flocks. When one booby spots a school of fish, it will call to the others, and they will all swarm over and each go into their stupendous dives, each one spearing a fish.
  • They can also dive down to get fish while bobbing on the water's surface. This is true of only the blue-footeds. Other boobies can't do this.
  • The blue-footeds live along the western coasts of Central and South America.  About half of all blue-footeds live on the Galápagos Islands.
The range of the blue-footed booby
(Map from National Geographic)

The Galápagos Islands is a cluster of about 14 islands off the western-most knob of South America. The islands were once upon a time the haven of pirates, as well as the home of unusual animals like the blue-footed booby.
(Map from

  • Every once in a great while they may venture as far north as the coastlines of Texas, Arizona, or California. In California, they are fond of the Salton Sea.
  • The other feature about them that earned them the name "stupid" is that they seem to have no fear of humans. You'd think this would have resulted in their extinction or near-extinction, but the flue-footeds are doing just fine.  Though their colony on the Galápagos does have protected status.
  • Actually, the blue-footed booby isn't all that unusual. There are five other species of booby. There is the red-footed (which made an appearance when the Brady Bunch went to Hawaii), the brown, the Peruvian, the Nazca, and the masked. 
  • That last species, the masked, was recently discovered to be the same as the Tasman, which had been thought to be extinct. Well, what did you expect from a bunch of boobies wearing masks, that people would know right off who they were?

National, Blue-Footed Booby, "Extinct" Booby Exposed -- Found "Masked," Using Alias, August 11, 2009
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds, Blue-footed Booby, Blue-footed Boobies, Sula nebouxii, Blue-footed Booby - Blue Feet, Deep Diver

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