Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Washington's Willowware, Men's Clubs and Dining Cars - the Delicious History and Etymology of "Blue Plate Specials"

Washington's Willowware, Men’s Clubs and Dining Cars – 
the Delicious History and Etymology of “Blue Plate Specials”

In December 1965, Earl Bartell invented K-Mart’s signature “Blue Light Special” at a store in Indiana in order to unload over-stocked Christmas wrapping paper.[i]  

The origin of “Blue Plate Special,” however, is a bit more complicated.

The “Blue Plate Special”

A “Blue Plate Special” is a “specially priced main course, as of meat and vegetables, listed as an item on a menu, especially in an inexpensive restaurant.”[ii]  The “Blue Plate” luncheon, dinner or special, dates to at least 1916.  The earliest known “blue plate specials” were served at men’s clubs in Boston and New York, and railroad dining cars.  A restaurant industry magazine picked up on the idea in early 1918, and recommended adopting the “blue-plate dinner” or “club plan,” as an alternative to the wasteful table d’hote[iii] and pricey a la carte service options.  Serving a pre-planned, daily special, on one plate, would reduce prices, cut costs, and streamline the ordering process. 

By 1919, restaurants up and down the East Coast offered “blue plate” luncheons, dinners or specials.  In 1920, a number of restaurants in New York City added “blue plate” options to their menu to avoid prosecution under the Sherman Anti-trust Act.  By the mid-1920s, “blue plate specials” were a common feature of roadside hotel and restaurant service throughout the United States.

But why blue plates?  One early description of a “Blue Plate Dinner” suggested that the name was associated with the use of fancy, or faux-fancy, china, meant to lend the meal an air of sophistication:

 Blue Plate Dinner. 

The Newark Restaurant, Newark, N. J., serves its meals on a good grade of chinaware, thereby imparting an air of refinement to the establishment – a feature that is appreciated by the discriminating patron.  When people see an announcement of the Newark Restaurant on the billboards and in the newspapers they know that there is something good in store for them if they care to go after it.   Visions of a willow pattern dinner service and all the “fixins” are conjured up by these words; “The Newark Restaurant announces a Blue Plate Dinner.”

Luncheonettes appealing to a high class patronage can offer lunches and teas on chinaware from the better known potteries of America, England and France – and profit from the innovation.

The Druggists Circular, July 1920, page 275.

Although it is unclear whether this one reference from the early years of “blue plate specials” is indicative of the origin of the name, the notoriety of willow-pattern plates at the time makes is plausible, if not probable, that the name was derived from an association with willow-pattern plates. 

As unlikely as it may seem to modern readers, “blue plates” of the willow pattern, were a fixture of pop-culture in the early 1900s, and had been for more than a hundred years.  The pattern became immensely popular shortly after Thomas Minton designed the pattern in about 1780.  Presidents enjoyed the pattern.  George Washington is said to have owned some willow pattern plates.  He is at least known to have purchased a “sett of large blue and white China” in 1785, before assuming the Presidency, to have used “blue and white Canton ware” at Mount Vernon.[iv]  President Martin Van Buren purchased a number of “blue-edged dishes, blue-printed plates, gold band china coffees, willow plates and dishes” when he refurbished the White House.[v] 

Although the willow-pattern plates eventually lost their high-fashion cachet; nostalgia, familiarity, and an inexplicable continued fascination with the purported Chinese, or Cantonese, fable depicted in the design, kept the design in the public eye.  Eventually, the willow-pattern plates influenced fashion trends, were celebrated in poetry and song, were the subject of comic, dramatic, and musical theater productions, and were fodder for writers of fiction and non-fiction. 

The “Willow Pattern”

History of the Willow Pattern, 1904.
Among the first specimens of porcelain brought by the Dutch from china, over two hundred years ago, were tiny tea-sets of a bluish-white ground, with landscapes and figures in dark blue depicted upon them.  In these landscapes a tree, called by the Chinese a willow, was conspicuous in the foreground; whence the style came to be known as the “Chinese Willow Pattern.”  This was the fashionable tea-set in the time of George I. and George II.  The Dutch and English manufacturers imitated it, and produced not only tea-sets but dinner services of the same pattern, though very coarse compared with the genuine Chinese article.  These were imported to America, where they became so common that few families of means were without a full willow-pattern table-service. Afterward, as handsomer china appeared, this was voted old-fashioned and even vulgar, so that in time it almost entirely disappeared.  This, however, was not until after the time of President Washington – as we are told that at some of Mrs. Washington’s dinner and tea parties a service of the blue willow-pattern china was used.

Thomas County Cat (Colby, Kansas), December 16, 1886, page 7.

The Blue China Book, 1916, page 248.

Although the willow pattern was still not particularly fashionable in the 1890s, it was still widely available:

[T]he famous Canton blue is not what one might term fashionable, but the dealers say that a steady trade of this ware is kept up by the persons who must match old sets, and the fact that broken dishes may be replaced at small cost will sustain the trade in plain white china and the quaint willow pattern with its romantic history.

The Washington Critic (DC), February 9, 1890, page 3.

Holiday party hints in the newspaper regularly suggested breaking out the “blue plates” for patriotic occasions; blue and yellow for Washington’s Birthday, red, white and blue for the Fourth of July:

In the center of the table put a huge blue bowl of yellow tulips, as blue and yellow are the Colonial colors.  Have yellow candles and shades, and if possible blue plates and dishes.  If you are lucky enough to own some of the dark blue Staffordshire you will rejoice to use it on this occasion, but Canton will do as well, or even the cheap reproductions of willow pattern, which are plenty in the shops today.

The Virginia Enterprise (Virginia, Minnesota), March 2, 1900, page 2.

This time her supper carried out the idea of the national colors, a red ice being served on a pyramid of white ice cream, on a blue plate.

The Kinsley Graphic (Kinsley, Kansas), July 11, 1902, page 4.

The willow pattern was not the only blue plate design available; collectors sought out any number of Canton blue plate patterns.[vi]  But the willow pattern was the most popular pattern, and had a firm grip on the popular imagination and a secure place in American and British pop-culture.  

The San Francisco Call, September 5, 1909, page 13.

The Willow-Pattern Plate in Pop-Culture

[F]ashion still gives a preference to Chinese patterns and forms.  A remarkable instance of this preference is to be found in the fact, that the sale of the common blue plate, known as the “willow-pattern,” exceeds that of all the others put together. . . .

By every association, in spite of its want of artistic beauty, it is dear to us.  It is mingled with our earliest recollections; it is like the picture of an old friend and companion whose portrait we see everywhere, but of whose likeness we never grow weary.  Unchanged are its charms, whether we view it as a flat oval dish – rounded into a cheese plate – hollowed out into a soup tureen, or contorted into the shape of a ladle!  Still, in every change of form, are the three blue people rushing over the bridge; still the boatman sits listless on the stream and the doves are constantly kissing and fluttering in great glorification at the result.

What it is all about we will presently inform the reader, if he will provide himself with an orthodox plate, and go with us through the following story which is said to be to the Chinese what our “Jack the giant killer,” or Robinson Crusoe,” is to us.  It is the story of the Willow-Pattern Plate.

The Living Age, Volume 25, Number 311, May 4, 1850, page 209; The Ottawa Free Trader (Ottawa, Illinois), May 25, 1850, page 1.

Each of the design elements of the willow pattern play a role in the supposed ancient, Chinese, or Cantonese, fable (although some believed that the story was written after the fact, as a marketing tool).  The pattern features a willow tree on a river bank.  Two ornate buildings stand to the right of the willow tree.  A plain building stands on the other side of the river, to the left.  Three people can be seen crossing a bridge that spans the river.  Beyond the willow, to the left, a small sailboat sails toward an island in the background.  Above the willow tree, in the top-center of the plate, two doves face each other. 

The fable, like Romeo and Juliet, tells the story of a boy and a girl; ill-fated, young lovers who die for love.  A wealthy “Mandarin” lives on his fabulous estate on the right-side of the plate.  A modest peasant boy, or poet, lives on the wrong side of the river (wrong side of the tracks) – think Valley Girl, performed in the style of a Chinese opera. 

He falls in love with her from afar.  They float notes to each other in toy sailboats or coconuts.  In some versions of the story, the boy is egged on to pursue the reckless affair by his ambitious, silkworm-raising mother, who wants to curry favor with and win valuable contracts from the wealthy Mandarin. The girl’s father disapproves, and imprisons her in the summer house; he has promised her hand to a wealthy nobleman.  

The boy rescues her; she steals her father’s gold for a nest-egg; they run away.  The three people shown on the bridge represent the couple being chased by her father.  In some versions of the story, the couple escapes; sails away to the island where they live happily ever after – at least until they are hunted down by either her father or the nobleman to whom she was promised, and are burned to death in their home.  In other versions, her father catches them on the bridge and strangles the boy, throwing him into the river.  Distraught, she follows suit.

But since, as the moral of the story holds, the gods are kind to lovers, the young lovers rise from the ashes (or from the deep) and are transformed into two doves – love birds.  Nothing can keep them apart. 

The Washington Times, November 5, 1922, page 9d.

The 1922 version performed on Broadway added a novel twist – an Indecent Proposal.  Imagine Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore and Robert Redford in the leading roles.  The Mandarin is not the girl’s father, but a wealthy businessman: 

[He] claims, in argument with the Keeper of the Bridge, that a woman has no soul to love, - but a body to love, and that she can always be purchased with jewels and gold.  He sets about proving it at the expense of the girl.  The girl, does not heed the warnings of her lover, nor of the Keeper of the Bridge.  She crosses and enters the pagoda of the Mandarin on the other side of the bridge, saying that she will get all the jewels and gold to share with her lover.
She returns from Pagoda, a changed girl.  Realizing what happened, she jumps into the river and drowns herself.  Her poet-lover takes up her “swan-song,” and jumps in after her.  The Mandarin devilishly laughs in triumph.

New York Clipper, October 18, 1922, page 12.

The myth was retold in the press dozens of times, and in various forms, through the years.  In 1831, a Christian writer recast the story as a Biblical allegory, with the willow tree as the Tree of Knowledge, the lovers as Adam and Eve, and the Mandarin as the Serpent.  In 1851, a parody of the story debuted at the Strand Theatre in London, England.  A dramatic version of the story was performed in London in the 1870s.  In 1885, a Christian missionary to China expanded the story into a novel entitled, “The Willow Pattern Plate.”  The story and the plate are mentioned hundreds of times in British, American and Australian books, magazines and newspapers throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.   

The story, or the plates, or both together, were the subject of numerous poems, as illustrated by the following excerpts from two of many such examples:

I have never been to China, and I hope I never
Be chosen as Ambassadress to Pekin or Chu-
But I know the kind of place it is, as well as
   wiser pates,
From different Words on China, illustrated by
The color of the country is a kind of dirty
With chaotic land and water here and there
   appearing through;’
Interspersed with funny bridges, and paths
   that seem to glide
To very funny houses upon the other side.

Thomas County Cat (Colby, Kansas), December 16, 1886, page 7.

The bay spreads out – clear, placid, bright
   A summer sea, fringed round with green;
Afar some isle, mayhap, in sight
   Rising from out its breast is seen.
   And houses mirror in its sheen.

And all is still – nor voice, nor song,
   Comes the enjoyment to abate
Of that fair scene – fair, though a wrong
   It tells – (of lover – father’s hate) –
   Upon a willow pattern plate.

-Detroit Free Press.

Johnstown Weekly Democrat (Johnstown, Pennsylvania), December 13, 1889, page 5.

The Sun New York, June 27, 1897, page 12.

In about 1896, the vaudeville act, The Hawthorne Sisters, rose to fame and fortune performing a musical production, “The Willow Pattern Plate.”  The show spawned a hit song and new fashion trend, earned the sisters a small fortune, and was a stepping stone for the songwriter, Leslie Stuart, who later achieved success writing the score for The Floradora Girl.  “The Willow Pattern Plate” played for nine months at The Palace in London, and later conquered the United States:

Morton engaged us for the Palace Music Hall, in London.  That was in 1896, and . . . the time secured for us was five weeks.  Instead we remained at the Palace for nine months and were abroad three years.  During that period ‘The Willow Pattern Plate’ was done and soon became the rage.  Everyone whistled the dainty little air.  Men wore “Pattern Plate” waistcoats at night and . . . ‘Pattern Plate’  ties in the morning.  When we returned, the success was duplicated at Koster & Bial’s and our modest fortunes were made.

The Times (Washington DC), September 24, 1899, second part, page 17.  The show became an audience favorite, and was performed throughout the United States for years, by the Hawthorne Sisters and other companies.

The San Francisco Call, May 14, 1899, page 29.

Hopkinsville Kentuckian, June 11 1912, page 3 - Chatauqua performance.

In 1914, Edison Films released a film version of the story, entitled The Story of the Willow Pattern: A Legend of Old China.

The Edison Kinetogram, Volume 10, Number 1, February 1, 1914, page 9.

In the midst of all of this “blue plate” mania, the “Blue Plate Luncheon” first appeared in 1916.

The Origins of the “Blue Plate Special”

The early references to “blue plate” luncheons, dinners or specials do not firmly establish where or when the practice originated.  Early descriptions suggest they may have originated in men’s clubs, or in railroad dining cars.  Early discussions of the “blue plate” pricing policy also suggest that it came into favor during and after World War I, as a price-cutting measure to combat wartime, and post-wartime economic problems and  profiteering on the part of restaurant owners.

The earliest, verifiable example of the expression, “Blue Plate Luncheon,” that I could find in print, is from 1916:

Beginning October 9, 1916, we shall serve – in the Grill Room – Blue Plate Luncheons, at 50 cents.  These will provide – at a slightly less cost than the regular table d’hote – a simpler, more compactly served meal, and have been instituted to meet the request for a somewhat less elaborate luncheon than the usual one.

Boston City Club Bulletin, Volume 11, Number 1, October 1916, page 9 (similar references occurred throughout the year).

Barry Popik's online etymology dictionary, The Big Apple, lists several slightly earlier examples, from late 1915 through early 1916, all relating to dining car service on the Seaboard Air Line Railroad. 

In 1917, a travel writer recorded his experience dining on board the Seaboard Air Line Railroad.  He described "Blue Plate Special" service similar to that served in the Boston City Club, and discussed the advantages of the “Blue Plate Special” over the traditional table d’hote service:

The Seaboard Air Line, however, runs an all-steel train between Atlanta and Birmingham which, in point of equipment, may be compared with the best limited trains anywhere. . . .  All Seaboard dining cars offer, aside from regular a la carte service, a sixty-cent dinner known as the “Blue Plate Special.”  This dinner has many advantages over the usual dining-car repast.  In the first place, though it does not comprise bread and butter, coffee or tea, or dessert, it provides an ample supply o meat and vegetables at a moderate price.  In the second place, though served at a fixed price, it bears no resemblance to the old-style dining car table d’hote, but, upon the contrary, looks and tastes like food.  The food, furthermore, instead of representing a great variety of viands served in microscopic helpings on innumerable platters and “side dishes,” comes on one great plate, with recesses for vegetables.  The “Blue Plate Special” furnishes, in short, the chief items in “good home meal.

Julian Street, American Adventures; A Second Trip “Abroad at Home,” New York, The Century Co., 1917, pages 361-362.

In December, 1917, an article appeared in the magazine, Cincinnatian, encouraging hotels and restaurants to adopt the “Blue Plate Dinner” option as a means of reducing the size of meat portions, make ordering simpler, and to reduce overhead.  A restaurant and hotel industry magazine picked up the article in early 1918, bringing the idea to a wider audience:

“Club Service” for Hotels. 
As the hotels and restaurants eliminate meat and wheat from their menus, cut down the number of dishes offered and the size of meat portions, they are brought under an unpleasant fire of criticism from the public.  “Only the amount of food is reduced – why don’t hotel men reduce the prices, too?” is the way the average patron views this situation, and such criticism is probably the chief difficulty in installing food-saving measures.  Hotel men know that the burden of costs lies not in the raw material purchased for their dining rooms, but in the cooking, service, and overhead charges.  It is estimated that raw food costs hardly 20 per cent of menu prices, and therefore reduction in portions do not represent much actual saving in outlay to the hotels, especially in this period of high prices and scarce labor.

A way around this difficulty has been suggested – that the hotels add to their a la carte menus each day a lunch and dinner one club dish comprising a combination of meat and vegetables, with the addition of one or two varieties, will give patrons more actual food, and at the same time interfere in no way with the reduction of meat portions.  As an example of the way this plan works, the “blue-plate dinner” served for many years at the Friars’ Club in New York is described.  The dining room of this well-known club reflects its character by being known as the “Great Hall of the Monastery,” and is equipped with a very large special plate made for the service in blue ornamented crockery.  On this big blue plate is served a complete dinner at a reasonable price.

The combination is changed daily.  One day there will be a small steak with a baked potato, corn fritters, string beans, green peas, and fried tomatoes, for example, and on the next night the plate may hold corned beef and cabbage with turnips, carrots, stewed celery, radishes, etc.  On Friday nights there is fish or lobster grill surrounded by liberal helpings of vegetables.  This blue-plate dinner simplifies ordering, for a member has only to ask for it by name.  So in reducing consumption of meat in hotels, by leading guests to read the bill of fare and make selections instead of ordering roast beef or steak, the hotel men would find the club-dinner idea helpful.  In some of the cafeteria establishments in different states the club lunch and dinner idea is carried out with service on a special plate, made so that there are separate compartments for meat or fish and two or three varieties of vegetables.  This club plan of service is not in the nature of a table d’hote, but is simply one novelty listed with a regular a la carte menu.

The Cincinnatian, volume 4, number 51, page 11, December 15, 1917; The Mixer & Server; Official Journal of the Hotel and Restaurant Employes International Alliance and Bartenders International League of America, Volume 27, Number 2, February 15, 1918, page 52.

The article’s recommendations suggest that “club service,” or “blue-plate service” was a relatively new, or not widely known practice in 1918.  The article does, however, explicitly note that such service had already been available in, “some of the cafeteria establishments in different states,” whether referred to as “club lunch and dinner,” or a “blue-plate dinner.”  The following newspaper item, from 1917, illustrates that the practice had already gained some converts before the article’s publication:

Answering a demand for a quickly served but adequate luncheon, we have arranged to serve daily in the Tea Room what will be known as a Blue Plate 50c Luncheon.

It includes meat with potatoes, one vegetable, salad, rolls and butter.

The Indianapolis Star, May 13, 1917.

Within a few years, “Blue Plate” luncheons, dinners, and specials were available in at least Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New Jersey.

Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia), April 24, 1920, page 3.

Evening Star (Washington DC), July 16, 1919, page 6.
The Druggists Circular, July 1920, page 275.

In early 1920, at least one restaurant in New York City served “blue plate”-style, fixed-price meals:

At the Blue Plate, 56 West 50th Street, a 50 cent luncheon is served, and dinner at 75 cents.  Meals are served from blue plate old English willow ware.  The proprietor came from the West, where he turned away disappointed crowds every evening.  The steaks, baked Virginia ham and other dishes made his reputation.

Henry Collins Brown, Valentine’s City of New York; a Guide Book, New York, Valentine’s Manual, Incorporated, 1920 (the copy I viewed online bears a stamp dated “Mar 24 1920”), pages 80-81.

Although “blue plate” service originated in the restaurant industry, a household hints article published in 1919 recommended extending “blue plate” service to the home, as a post-war economy cost-cutting measure.  The same article also suggests that “blue plate” service may have originated on the Great Northern Railroad:

In hot weather a two or three course dinner is most enjoyable and will contain fully as much food value as a more elaborate meal.  Here is a big opportunity for the wide-awake housewife to follow the plan that became general during the war – that of serving platter meals.  The entire meal may be arranged in the kitchen upon a large dinner plate and served, so that nothing but the dessert and coffee will be required afterward. . . .
All the above menus are very easily prepared and once the housewife learns to use this service successfully she will, like the Great Northern Railroad, see the economy of it, for when the food is prepared and served from the kitchen right on the service plate, it spells economy.  For you know that it is from the platter service known as the Blue Plate Special of the Great Northern Railroad that the cafeteria sprung.

Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), July 19, 1919, night extra, page 6 (also published in the Atlanta Constitution[vii]).

About ten years later, in 1928, a book on American etiquette described “blue plate” service as a simplified form of home meal service:

If one wishes a still more simplified dinner, a “blue plate” service may be used.  In this, the dinner plate is brought from the kitchen, with the serving of meat, potatoes, and vegetables already on it.  Care must be taken to have the food daintily arranged.  There must be no jumbling or mixing of foods or sauces.  Attractive garnishing adds to the appearance of such a plate.

Helen Hathaway, Manners: American Etiquette, New York, E. P. Dutton & Company, 1928, page 297.

Earlier Origins?

According to Gary Martin, writing at,  “[t]he food writer Daniel Rogov[viii] claims that ‘blue plate special’ was first used on 22 October 1892, on a menu of a Fred Harvey restaurant on the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe Railroad.  This isolated claim is unverified, and perhaps unverifiable.  If the menu still exists, I would be interested in seeing an image.  But if the expression was, in fact, first used in 1892, it was not widely or continuously used thereafter.  The practice of serving “blue plate specials” did not take off until about 1920; and then, apparently, largely as a response to wartime and post-wartime economic conditions. 

Fred Harvey operated a chain of restaurants and hotels along the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe Railroad.  His first restaurant opened in Florence, Kansas in 1878.  His company also provided catering services on some of the trains.  Images of dozens of Fred Harvey menus can be seen online, simply by searching for “fred and harvey and menu” on any good search engine.  Many of those menus are, in fact, dated, which is consistent with the very specific date referenced by Daniel Rogov.  Many of the Fred Harvey Company menus, apparently, were decorated with Southwestern-inspired artwork printed on the cover, and included information about the trip and stops along the way.  The menus could be saved as souvenirs of the trip.

Most of the Fred Harvey menus online seem to date from the 1940s or 1950s, although there are several pre-1920s menus available.  The earliest menu that I found is in the collection of the New York Public Library, and dates from 1905.  None of the online menu images that I found list a “Blue Plate Special,” or any other form of “blue plate” service.  Guidebooks published in 1900 and 1913, for the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe Railroad’s “California Limited” service, which ran between Chicago and San Francisco, describe Fred Harvey’s onboard meal service:

Harvey Dining Car

All meals en route are served in the dining car.
Breakfast and luncheon, a la carte; dinner, table d’hote.
This service, under the management of Mr. Fred Harvey, has a national reputation.

The California Limited Santa Fe Route 1900-1901.  

Breakfast and luncheon are served a la carte; the dinner is table d’hote.

The California Limited, Nineteenth Season 1913-1914.

If the “Blue Plate Special” did, in fact, originate with Fred Harvey menus on the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe, the option does not seem to have been widespread, or at least did not persist into the twentieth century.  It is possible that it may have been offered on some segment, or on some train, or in some restaurants or hotels, but without more information on the purported menu, it is difficult to determine precisely how widespread the Fred Harvey’s “blue plate” service was, if it was offered at all.

The Kansas Historical Society’s Kansapedia website lists a sample menu for westbound passengers available at a Harvey House in 1888.  The lead item on the menu is “Blue Points on Shell.”  Blue point oysters were also the first-listed menu item on the 1905 menu.  In 1946, you could order a “Blue Point Cocktail.” 

If you squint a little – any one of those may look a bit like “Blue Plate” or “Blue Plate Special.” 

The California Limited 1913-1914
The Harvey House Museum in Florence, Kansas posted an exemplary menu for a “Traditional Meal” served from 1878 through 1900; the menu does not list a “Blue Plate Special.” 

Stephen Fried, who maintains A Blog About All Things Harvey, and who is the author of, Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West, did not not mention “Blue Plate Specials” in his book, because, he has, “never seen any evidence that the Fred Harvey company had anything to do with the creation of the 'Blue Plate Special.'”  In addition, Richard L. Friedman, who maintains the website,, which is dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of Harvey Houses, has “never heard that ‘blue plate special’ was a Harvey creation.” 

But whether Fred Harvey invented the Blue Plate Special or not, their food was apparently good; or at least its employees thought so:

I am sick of Southern cooking,
Beaten biscuit, ham, and all,
And the corn bread and fried chicken
On my jaded palate pall.  Of that menu once 
so tempting,
Not a thing to-day appeals –
Give me back my Harvey diner,
My hotel on whirring wheels. 
Oh, how joyous each one feels, for the brakeshoe sqeaks and squeals –
We have reached an eating station and it’s Harvey serves the meals.

Excerpt from, On the Road to Santa Fe (with apologies to Kipling), by Lucien Waggoner, Jr., Santa Fe Employes’ Magazine, Volume 1, Number 1, December, 1906, page 15.
The California Limited 1913-1914

The Rise of the “Blue Plate Special”

The rapid rise of “blue plate” service from men’s clubs and railroad dining cars in the mid-1910s to ubiquitous diner fare in the early 1920s suggests that the “blue plate special” may have originated in the mid-1910s, as opposed to the early 1890s.  The contemporary discussions about the wartime and post-war cost-saving measures that prompted many to switch to “club service” or “blue plate special” service, also explains how and why it developed during the 1910s.

In 1920, another factor interceded to spread the “blue plate” gospel.  The Justice Department of the United States launched a crackdown on wartime “profiteering.”  The cities of Chicago, St. Louis, and finally New York City, lowered their prices in response to the pressure.  One of the ways in which restaurants changed their service to comply with the pressure to lower prices, was to institute so-called “blue plate” service.

In 1920, Assistant United States Attorney General, Armin W. Riley, led the Justice Department’s “flying squadron” anti-profiteering task-force.  Many of the complaints he investigated and prosecuted related to excessive prices of a la carte and table d’hote meal service at restaurants and hotels:

Many complaints tell of robbery as practiced by hotels and restaurants in their food prices.  A well-known society woman objected yesterday to paying $1 for a glass of lemonade in a fashionable hotel.  One of the chain restaurants is mentioned almost daily for the price of it’s a la carte dishes.  Mr. Van Sickler said he had not done anything about it yet.

“That’s a big problem,” he said.  “I am waiting until Mr. Riley returns to-morrow, to hear what he says about it.”

New York Tribune, April 9, 1920, page 13.

Investigation of restaurant prices showed profits of several hundred per cent . . . .

New York Tribune, September 24, 1920, page 3.

Restaurants in St. Louis and Chicago relented first:

But restaurants in New York City continued to resist:

New York Hotels Won’t Follow Chicago Lead in Cutting Prices.

The Evening World (New York), September 29, 1920, Wall Street Final Edition, page 8.

In October, the relationship between the “flying squadron” and New York hotels and restaurants soured:

But eventually, a number of restaurants relented, and added “blue plate”-like menu options:

The plaint of Mr. Boland that prices of certain popular items had to be high to offset the loss on those not so much in demand, has been overcome by Mr. Kirtland and his clients, who purpose offering a scientifically balanced meal for a fixed amount.

New York Tribune, October 28, 1920, page 9.

When more restaurants jumped on the bandwagon, some of them adopted the new menu option, along with the “blue plate” name:

The Hotel Breslin fell in line yesterday with the hotels and restaurants cooperating with Armin W. Riley, Assistant United States Attorney General, to bring down the price of food.
On November 1 a special blue plate luncheon service will be inaugurated at $1 a plate.  There will also be a $2 table d’hote dinner and club breakfasts for 50, 60 and 75 cents.  On November 10 a cafeteria will be opened.

New York Tribune, October 29, 1920, page 10.

New York Tribune, November 26, 1922, page 8.

With apologies to Kander and Ebb, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere – and “blue plate special” had made it.  Within a few short years, it would be a common option available almost anywhere.

Automobile Green Book, Official Guide Book of Automobile Legal Association, Volume 1, Scarborough Motor Guide Company, Boston, Massachusetts, 1922, page 46.
"Motor Trips" New England-Canada, Hartford Connecticut, Guyde Publishing Company, 1928, page 26.

"Motor Trips" New England-Canada, page 71.

"Motor Trips" New England-Canada, page 97.

"Motor Trips" New England-Canada, page 113.

"Motor Trips" New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Hartford, Connecticut, The Guyde Publishing Company, 1928, page 312.

"Motor Trips" New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, page 321.

[i] Akron Beacon Journal, April 14, 2001; Daily Globe (Ironwood, Michigan), April 3, 2001, page 1.
[ii] Unabridged. Random House, Inc. plate special (accessed: January 23, 2015).
[iii] Table d’hote is a form of fixed price menu, with limited or no options.  It was considered wasteful, because in a large meal, any number of customers might choose not to eat one or several of the items served.  Table d’hote also seems to have been served on a large number of dishes, over a period of time.  One of the novel elements of the “blue plate special,” mentioned in several of the early references, is that the meat, vegetables and potatoes were all served on the “same plate.”  Shocking!
[iv] Ada Walker Camehl, The Blue China Book, New York, E. P. Dutton & Company, 1916, page 249.
[v] Ada Walker Camehl, The Blue China Book, New York, E. P. Dutton & Company, 1916, page 257.
[vi] Ada Walker Camehl, The Blue China Book, New York, E. P. Dutton & Company, 1916.
[vii] Sam Clements, American Dialect Society Listserv (ADS-L), May 8, 2005.
[viii] Daniel Rogov was an American-Israeli wine critic and food writer. His comments on the origin of, “blue plate special,” was apparently posted online on a site called, Culinary Corner. See Michael Quinion, WorldWideWords..  The original post does not appear to be available at this time.