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shameless pleading

Blue Plate Special

Woo Hoo.

Dear Word Detective: Whence came the term “Blue Plate Special”?  I’m reasonably sure that it is unrelated to “Fashion Plate.” I checked your archives for “Blue Plate” with a singular lack of success. Since Delftware decorations are generally blue and the plates, etc., were more expensive and exclusive than the undecorated versions and therefore “special,” I wondered if this could be the origin of “Blue Plate Special.”– Charlie Fox.

Close, Grasshopper, very close. But you’re right on the mark about the lack of any connection to “fashion plate,” meaning a person who pays great, perhaps excessive, attention to wardrobe and appearance. “Fashion plate,” which first appeared in the mid-19th century, compared such people to the “plates,” high-quality printed illustrations, that appeared as advertising in magazines and store windows. This use of “plate” came from the etched or engraved printing plates that produced the illustrations, and such printed “plates” were frequently used to sell upscale clothing, etc., making “fashion plate” a synonym for the height of luxury and fashion.

“Blue Plate Special,” on the other hand, is a US phrase which connotes economy rather than extravagant luxury. It was commonly used from the 1920s through the late 20th century in mid-range restaurants and diners to mean a daily special consisting of a complete meal (usually meat, one or two vegetables, potato, etc.) sold at a reduced price. The attraction for the customer was a complete meal at a low price, and the restaurant could base the special on ingredients it either happened to have on hand (perhaps combined as meat loaf, goulash, etc.) or could obtain in quantity at a good price.

The origin of “Blue Plate Special” is uncertain. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to a 1961 Merriam-Webster definition of “blue plate” as both “A restaurant dinner plate divided into compartments for serving several kinds of food as a single order” and “A main course (as of meat and vegetable) served as a single menu item.” It’s certainly possible that some restaurants used that sort of plate to serve the all-in-one daily “Blue Plate Special.” But was the original “Blue Plate Special” actually served on a blue plate, and, if so, why?

The most plausible explanation I have found of the origin of “Blue Plate Special” (courtesy of, in large part, the American Dialect Society mailing list) traces it to the Fred Harvey Company in the late 19th and early 20th century. Beginning in the 1870s, Harvey developed a chain of restaurants at stops on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad route from Chicago to Los Angeles, a line best known for the famed Santa Fe Super Chief railway liners. Harvey’s restaurants (many of which became hotels) were known for their cleanliness and consistently high quality of food, both of which had been rarities to train travelers prior to Harvey’s arrival on the scene. One of Harvey’s smartest moves was to establish a corps of “Harvey Girls,” professional workers vetted, trained and housed by the chain in dormitories overseen by “house mothers” who enforced a curfew. The rigorous standards of the Harvey chain made transcontinental train travel palatable to travelers who would have blanched at the thought just a few years earlier, and the Harvey Girls became so popular that in 1946 Judy Garland starred in “The Harvey Girls,” an MGM musical based on the chain.  When dining cars were eventually added to Santa Fe trains, they were run by the Fred Harvey Company as well.

Before the advent of the Fred Harvey restaurants, travelers had to depend on what they could grab in brief stops at stations. Harvey Restaurants excelled at the quick, efficient service needed, and apparently offered a “Blue Plate Special” to travelers in a hurry. There is some evidence that the term, which had appeared at least by 1919, originally referred to the faux-Wedgwood plates with a blue design used by the Harvey chain. It’s possible, of course, that “Blue Plate Special” originated somewhere other than the Harvey restaurants, but the fame of the Harvey chain would explain how the term spread so widely so rapidly.

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