The Automat: Proto-Fast Food

CeCe and I are rapidly wrapping up grad school.  Click here to learn what we intend to do next.

In the meantime I wanted to post a few longer form essays I wrote for Bill Cronon’s environmental history class last fall.  (You’ll know Bill from his recent and much-admired NYT op-ed on our political turmoil here in Wisconsin, if not for his award-winning books.)  Lately, Bill’s been busy swatting away overzealous Republican operatives.  Otherwise he would have already posted these essays, and those written by my classmates, including CeCe, on his website.

When that happens, I’ll let you know.  In the meantime, please excuse these lengthy digressions from the harrowing tales of modern travel that you’ve come to expect from Letters to Milo.

The Automat: Proto-Fast Food

“The Automat is the only restaurant I can think of that uses its apparatus to set it apart from all others. “ – Food journalist, George Rector, 1939. [i]

Over the course of the twentieth century, Americans gradually transitioned from eating traditional foods mostly at home to consuming an increasing percentage of meals prepared elsewhere.  Today, entire meals are often sourced from a vending machine.  How did this transition happen? Working Americans simply didn’t one day decide to switch from mother’s meatloaf to a life filled with Dunkin’ Donuts, Oscar Meyer Lunchables, and the Outback Steakhouse Bloomin’ Onion.  Rather, the progression was gradual, helped on by an expanding commuter culture, longer working hours, cheaper food and rising incomes, advances in food science, and a collective loss of cooking ability.

Automats were known for quality décor as well as tasty food. Source: NYPL, Digital ID 809530

The Automat exemplifies the state of this transition during the early parts of the twentieth century.  Based on a German invention, the Automat chain of restaurants was the brainchild of Joe Horn and Frank Hardart, whose Horn & Hardart food vending and restaurant empire peaked in the 1930’s and 1940’s with over 80 restaurants located primarily in New York and Philadelphia.[ii]

This 1904 postcard depicts the opulence of early Automats. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Automat.jpg

The premise was simple:  deposit a nickel in a slot, turn a knob, and retrieve your macaroni and cheese, baked beans or cup of coffee.  Many of the restaurants also had cafeteria seating and service.  At a time in America’s history when few had discretionary income, the ability to eat for pennies was a sure sign of progress to the restaurants’ urban working class patrons.   At the same time, reflecting sensibilities in flux, the art deco interiors of many of the facilities were worthy of comment in some of the period’s architectural journals. According to one New York Times retrospective, the “Art Deco decor was as luscious as the lemon meringue.”[iii]

Most surprising to modern consumers, the Automats were actually known for the high quality of their cooking.  Unlike many chain restaurants today, Horn & Hardart meals were prepared fresh, in centrally located commissaries in both cities, and transported to the stores each day.  Cooked food was kept fresh through the use of refrigeration systems, at the time a relatively recent innovation.  Another example of technology in transition: the New York restaurants relied on fresh not frozen eggs and contracted with an “egg-breaking company” whose employees broke open eggs and deposited them in refrigerated tubs for use later that day.[iv]

An Automat in 1936. Source: By Berenice Abbott (http://www.flickr.com/photos/nypl/3110616716/) Public domain , via Wikimedia Commons

The evolution of the menu also mirrored trends in American eating.  In the early years, traditional Yankee dishes like milk toast, lobster newburg, and fried ham were popular Automat fare.  Some locations had an oyster bar. Later on, what modern Americans would recognize as comfort food predominated: baked beans, macaroni and cheese, fruit pies of several sorts.  Strong, fresh coffee, priced at a nickel for decades, was a Horn & Hardart staple.  In 1922, Horn & Hardart capitalized on their reputation for quality cuisine by opening a series of retail stores, selling prepackaged entrees and desserts, presaging America’s fascination with TV dinners, take-out and quick-cooking microwave meals.

A later Automat. Cleanliness was critical. Source: New York Public Library, ID: PS_MSS_CD5_49

The Automat’s rise to prominence spoke to urban America’s drive for efficiency and its infatuation with the newest technology.  Gus Hardart, a company employee and relative of co-founder Frank Hardart, noted in a 1986 interview, “At the time, people were fascinated by mechanical things… Here was a mechanical device for making food.  It caught everyone’s imagination.”[v](The glistening Automat dispensers also echoed the period’s burgeoning interest in cleanliness and hygiene.)

The novelty of the technology faded over time, but the modern urban consumer’s preference for fast and cheap certainly has not.  The Automat stands as an important marker on the road to the modern fast food nation.

While Automats lingered until 1991 in New York, the death blow was struck in the mid-1970’s when the flagship location in Manhattan’s Times Square was replaced by a Burger King.[vi]

The Automat’s innovations helped paved the way for the fast food explosion at the end of the twentieth century. Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/af/Burger_king_whopper.jpg

[i]George Rector, Dining in New York with Rector (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1939), 117.

[ii]Lorraine B. Diehl and Marianne Hardart, The Automat (New York: Clarkson Potter, 2002), 45

[iii]James Barron, “Last Automat Closes, Its Era Long Gone,” New York Times, April 11, 1991 acced December 17, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/04/11/nyregion/last-automat-closes-its-era-long-gone.html

[iv] Diehl and Hardart, 52.

[v]Diehl and Hardart, 38.

[vi] Barron, “Last Automat Closes, Its Era Long Gone,”

2 responses to “The Automat: Proto-Fast Food

  1. Aunt Rosemary

    Loved the essay on the rise of fast food. I ate at that Horn and Hardart establishment in Times Square before its demise in the 1970s and remember vividly as a young child visiting with my parents and having fun putting in my coins to get some food. It was such a novelty back then in the days before BK, McD, and TV dinners. Even remember my mother getting a cup of coffee for a nickel. Wow…I am old I guess! haha! That was a great piece of writing with some interesting pictures. Love you both, Aunt R.

  2. Aunt Rosemary

    Loved the essay on the rise of fast food. I ate at that Horn and Hardart establishment in Times Square before its’ demise in the 1970s and remember vividly as a young child visiting with my parents and having fun putting in my coins to get some food. It was such a novelty back then in the days before BK, McD, and TV dinners. Even remember my mother getting a cup of coffee for a nickel. Wow…I am old I guess! haha! That was a great piece of writing with some interesting pictures. Love you both, Aunt R.

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