Most of the single men that were drawn to California then were temporary dwellers dependent on restaurants and hotels for their meals, so it is not surprising that “square meal” would first be applied to meals served in restaurants.
One of the earliest uses of the phrase I’ve found was in an advertisement for the What Cheer House in Marysville CA in 1858. The What Cheer said it offered three square meals a day for a moderate charge.
The term evidently was not known in the East. Most of the news about life in California was delivered by newspaper correspondents who wrote long stories about their experiences. One of those was J. Ross Browne, a frequent contributor to Harper’s magazine, who wrote in 1863 about a small shanty eatery called “The Howling Wilderness Saloon” that offered “a good square meal” for fifty cents. Browne explained that a square meal “is not, as may be supposed, a meal placed upon the table in the form of a solid cubic block; but a substantial repast of pork and beans, onions, cabbage, and other articles of sustenance that will serve to fill up the corners of a miner’s stomach.” [Above advertisement, California, 1861]
Other writers also felt it was necessary to explain to faraway readers what square meal meant. In the mid-1860s the term was often included in lists of colorful and unfamiliar Western slang such as shebang, grub, and muk-a-muk, plus sayings such as You bet, or Bet your bottom dollar.
By the end of the Civil War, the term had begun to spread across the country. A Union soldier from Wisconsin referred in summer of 1865 to enjoying his first square meal since joining the regiment. The reporter asked what he meant by that and he answered, “Four cups of coffee, all the ham I can eat, with bread, butter, pies, cakes, pickles and cheese . . .”
A few years later a restaurant in Memphis TN celebrated the opening of a new eating saloon where “A ‘square meal’ is served up smoking hot for fifty cents.”
What is most revealing about the slang term – suggesting what the mainstream American idea of a good meal was – is what did NOT qualify as a square meal.
For many diners, a meal in a Chinese restaurant did not qualify. Samuel Bowles, publisher of the esteemed Springfield (MA) Republican, who wrote of his travels to the West in 1865, explained that a square meal was “the common term for a first rate one.” He described a Chinese dinner he attended in San Francisco where the “the universal odor and flavor soon destroyed all appetite.” He was rescued from the situation by the chief of police who took him to an American restaurant where he enjoyed mutton chops, squab, fried potatoes, and a bottle of champagne.
Another New England paper ratified Bowles’ disdain for a Chinese dinner, stating, “An American generally has to go and get a ‘square meal’ after thus dining.” A possible reason for the rejection of Chinese food may lie in an editorial in 1872 in the New York Evening Post that referred to a political campaign amounting to a “dish of hotch-potch, instead of a square meal of honest viands.” In other words, people wanted chunks of meat [i.e., viands], not bits of food mixed together.
It was also clear that a square meal was not the same thing as a lunch. Back in 1858 the What Cheer House advised that in addition to three squares a day, regular diners there might also get “a lunch between meals, if they can keep on the right side of the Cook.” A lunch was regarded then almost as a snack. Boston’s Lindall “Dining & Lunch Rooms” had three departments, one “for the ‘regular square meals,’ one an oyster counter, and one “devoted to hot lunches of smaller orders of almost every dish.”
Guests from abroad were not always pleased with the squareness of American meals. The Londoner Walter Scott wrote in Our American Cousins (1883) about struggling with square meals in hotels where typically an enormous number of dishes of food were served, not in courses but all at once. As a waiter told another visitor, “What people want here is a good square meal; they are not particular about what they eat, if only they have a lot of things placed in front of them.” This style of service reportedly led to huge amounts of dumped food floating in the NY harbor.
In the 20th century some people began to mourn the loss of the good old pre-modern square meal – which was increasingly seen as the opposite of “fancy food.” A street reporter in Chicago in 1924 asked a woman whether she preferred home cooking to what was served in a “high class” restaurant and she answered that she preferred a good square meal with “fewer fancy frills.”
I think her answer would still resonate today, and I’d guess that many would say a diner was the best place to get a square meal.
© Jan Whitaker, 2019