Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Blue Plate Special

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 3, 2013

A blue plate special is a specially low-priced meal, usually offered at diners and cafes, that consists of one meat (or fish if it was Friday) and one potato, and two vegetables, and served up on one plate as a single menu item.  Or, as it was referred to in the 1930s, a square [meal] for two bits.

On August 21, 2003, a Special to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer written by Judy Wagoner discussed glasswork by John Miller that was created to look like fast food.  She referred to it as an homage to the greasy spoon, small-town diner.  The article was aptly entitled:

Blue Plate Special‘ Casts A Congealed Eye On Diner Fare

When Richard Cohen of the Washington Post wrote about politics in Washington, the article was carried in the Vancouver Sun.  As with any political situation, there are the pros and cons of this party or the other.  But Richard Cohen had things to say about the goings on in Washington and it started with this paragraph:

There is something about politics that reminds me of the Blue Plate special.  You have to take it all or you take none of it.  The rule in politics as in all cheap restaurants is usually the same — no substitutions.

On December 20, 1946 the Edmonton Journal published a photograph with an interesting caption beneath it.  With an opportunity to inject humor into the daily news, the editor decided to allow that to happen.  And so, beneath the photo of cattle in Colorado, the following caption was placed:

This is a case of serving the ‘blue plate special‘ dinner to future blue plate special dinners.  It is a photograph of Colorado ranchmen feeding their beef cattle by tractor-drawn sleds after a blizzard left thousands of cattle stranded and starving in the snow.  Airplanes were also used to drop hay to herds which could not be reached by sled.

In the January 1929 edition of “The Restaurant Man” periodical, an article entitled, “Quick Lunchplaces Have Own Vernacular” was published where a quick mention was made about blue plate specials:

A blue plate is the label given a special daily combination of meat or fish, potatoes and vegetables, sold at a special price, and is ordered with the words, blue plate.

Now long before then, Frederick Henry Harvey (who, at the time, was working as a general freight agent at the time for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad) opened a string of Harvey House restaurants at railroad stations (making Fred Harvey the creator of the chain restaurant concept).  These restaurants served train passengers riding on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, the Kansas Pacific Railway, the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, and the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis, among others.  When a Harvey  House restaurant was built in Hugo (Oklahoma) in 1914, it was no different than the others.  Right there on the menu, passengers with only a short period of time between trains could order the blue-plate special.

The company established in 1875 is said to have created the expression blue plate special, debuting it on a Harvey House restaurant menu on October 22, 1892.  It was described as a “daily low-priced complete meal served on a blue-patterned china plate.”  With this new addition to his already high standards set for his staff and the food they served, Fred Harvey continued to build his reputation by presenting fine dining on china plates to train passengers sitting at tables dressed with fine Irish linens with Sheffield silver to complete the experience.

If there are any historians out there who know more about this fascinating bit of railroad history, Idiomation would love to hear from you.

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