“Meal ticket” is a term known better for its metaphorical meaning than for its original usage. It’s easy to conjure up a gangster in a 1940s film noir complaining that someone thinks he’s their meal ticket. Meaning, of course, that the person (probably a woman, alas) believes s/he has a found someone who can be manipulated into picking up the tab. This meaning came quick on the heels of the introduction of meal tickets around 1870.
Meal tickets were a way of life for young single people typically employed as department store clerks or office workers of the 1890s and early 20th century. They probably carried a meal ticket with them all the time. They lived alone in furnished rooms without kitchens, ate all their meals in restaurants designated for “ladies and gents” (see below), and were known as “mealers.” Periodically they would buy a meal ticket good for a week’s worth of restaurant meals. Because they paid in advance, they received a discount. A ticket for 21 meals costing 25 cents each might sell for as little as $4.00 rather than its face value of $5.25, giving the purchaser several “free” meals. If they could afford it, mealers would keep more than one ticket on hand so they could enjoy a little variety. Living lives of stupefying monotony and near-poverty, most needed all the variety they could come by.
Tickets did not have to be used up within a week, but their owners knew that holding a ticket for too long ran the risk that the restaurant would go out of business before it was all punched out. The unused meal ticket from the White Front Café of Joplin breaks down quarters into smaller sums thereby allowing that some meals might cost less, some more. It appears to be from the 1930s, a time when meal tickets were no longer being used in larger cities.
© Jan Whitaker, 2008