For more than three decades, the Great Big Baked Potato was a mainstay of Northern Pacific advertising. Many of the ads featured the same image of a potato on a plate (Garnet pattern of China), with a spoon on the right and a large pat of butter on the left.
The envelope below has the same image as the card above. This doesn’t appear to be on-board stationery but instead appears to have been used by Hazen Titus, who was made head of NP’s dining car department in 1908. Shortly after obtaining this position, Titus was on board the North Coast Limited when he overhead two Washington state farmers lament the fact that the potatoes they grew were so big there was no market for them, as people thought they were too big to serve. Titus soon ordered all they could grow.
Titus also featured Big Baked Apples, individually sized lemon pies, and other specialties in NP dining cars. But the Great Big Baked Potato was the real hit, leading NP to, among other things, mount a 40-foot-long, three-dimensional Great Big Baked Potato on the roof of its commissary in Seattle, Washington. Electric lights caused the butter to glow and the potatoes eyes to wink.
NP even commissioned a song about the giant spud. A portion of one of the three verses of lyrics went:
“Twas laying on a platter
Sure something just immense
Served with a spoon and butter
and it only cost ten cents.”
Click to download a 1.0-MB PDF of this sheet music about the Great Big Baked Potato (courtesy of the University of Colorado library.
Besides the Great Big Baked Potato on the cover, the sheet music also has ten photos of NP dining car specialties. Ten cents in 1909, the year the NP started serving the Great Big Baked Potatoes, is about $2.50 today.
The same potato image appears on the back of this truck serving NP’s own dairy and poultry farms near Kent, Washington. The potatoes themselves weren’t grown there but further east around Yakima and (according to yesterday’s brochure) somewhere in Montana, but not (contrary to popular belief) in Idaho.
The above cartoony postcard is probably about the same vintage as the truck in the previous photo, that is, the mid- to late-1910s. Although the potato in the picture is being served at home, it has the same spoon (with the NP logo) and pat of butter as in other Great Big Baked Potato ads.
This postcard could be more recent, but the NP slogan, “The Scenic Highway through the Land of Fortune,” dates back to at least 1912. One dollar (close to $25 today) seems an excessive price for the baked potato, but perhaps the postcard is intended to read $1 for all eight potatoes in the picture. Yet this would make each one 12.5 cents, which is also an unlikely price as the United States stopped minting half-cent pieces in 1857.
The above three-dimensional version of the Great Big Baked Potato is actually an inkwell. The spoon is a handle; lift it to reveal bowls for two different colors of ink.
No larger view available.
Finally, the above statue would probably be politically incorrect today, but it shows a baby-faced waiter carrying a Great Big Baked Potato. Though the butter pat and spoon are arranged similarly to the other ads, the platter on which the potato is resting is not decorated in the Garnet pattern.