Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Jitney Lunch

Consider this casefile dated January 1, 1916, from the St. Petersburg Daily Times newspaper. A New Year's greeting from something called The Jitney Lunch, "and remember the price is 5 cents for everything." Even in a 1916 economy, I have to say that's a pretty sweet deal. But what IS this Jitney Lunch they speak of?

A "Jitney", it should be mentioned first of all, is an antiquated term for a type of bus, or more specifically, a minibus. So does this mean a Jitney Lunch would be a prepackaged meal to take with you to eat on the bus? There goes my imagination's mental image picture of old Mr. Jitney in his butchers smock and paper fry-hat, lovingly laying each piece of salami on the rye while you watch.

According to this etymology site:

Jitney entered the language from an undisclosed language before 1903. Some have speculated it came from French jeton "token", but no one knows for sure. In any event we do know how the meaning slid over to a vehicle. In San Francisco and other cities small busses that charged only a nickel to ride acquired the name "jitney bus". It didn't take long for that phrase to be shortened to jitney. By 1914 the shorter form was in common use. The word fell on hard times in the 20s and 30s, when it came to mean "anything dilapidated, cheap, or ramshackle" because of its implication of cheapness, as in jitney pianos, jitney paintings, or jitney houses.

Aha. So, since the advertisement notes the super-cheap price of 5 cents, I'm guessing they're also using "jitney" in this same sense of low-budgetude. And a commenter on that previous link also says, "as a boy in elementary school, once a month we had "Jitney Lunch" which everyone looked forward to, as it was hot dogs, chips, choc milk and some dessert."

The term must have already been quite in vogue, judging from this similar ad spotted in the December 28, 1917 edition of the Norman, Oklahoma Transcript:

Whatever building housed this Jitney Lunch, it's apparently long gone. A glance at Google Maps shows a modern office building. A more hopeful datum: there exists evidence that a theatrical play entitled "Jitney Special Rare; or, Gert of the Jitney Lunch" existed in 1923 and most certainly must be made to exist again, by any means necessary.

But wait, what's this? In the December 2, 1919 edition of the Evening Independent one can see, if they squint, this tiny brief mention of one J. G. Nottage, "a popular restaurant man of St. Petersburg who made the words "Jitney Lunch" so famous in that city." Apparently Mr. Nottage was moving on from Jitneydom and going into the pie business. In Gainesville, as the squib suggests? I must know. Search engines provide us nothing else about Mr. Nottage, but a slew of other Nottages from the St. Pete area are indicated, and some are surely related. Could it be that one of them has, tucked somewhere in a dusty, forgotten and yellowing scrapbook of family pictures, an old photograph of Mr. Nottage and his Jitney Lunch counter?

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