Audrey Meadows worked there in “That Touch of Mink.” Marlo Thomas met a photographer there in an episode of “That Girl.” Joan Crawford longs for a fellow patron’s pie in “Sadie McKee.” In “Easy Living,” Jean Arthur calmly digests her beef potpie while cafeteria chaos ensues. Neeley ate there in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” An Irving Berlin ditty evokes the place (“let’s have another cup of coffee”) as did the lyrics of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” The advertising slogan “Less work for mother” became a middle-class mantra.
The place was the Automat, which in New York first opened July 2, 1912, in Times Square. The gleaming machines were successfully marketed as gleaming, newfangled gadgets that dispensed fresh food barely touched by human hands. Eventually, more than 40 Automats and cafeterias opened in New York.
The Automat is being recreated at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue starting Friday for an exhibition on lunch. Horn & Hardart Co. advertised its “New Method of Lunching” with a time-tested invitation: “Try it! You’ll Like It!!”
“The concept of quick lunch was a New York innovation,” said Laura Shapiro, a culinary historian who is working on the exhibition. “Time and money and speed ruled the New York day.”
As an Australian observer wrote a few years after the Automat opened in New York, the average man becomes a “manipulator of destiny,” suddenly finding himself “before Ali Baba’s cave. He whispers ‘Open sesame!’ and lo! a ham sandwich or a peach dumpling is his for the taking, also for a nickel.”
Until industrialization, lunch was called dinner and typically was consumed at home. The proliferation of blue-collar and white-collar workers transformed that institution into the lunch hour (or half-hour). Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart borrowed the Automat concept from Europe, where it had been developed in the 1880s. John Fritsche, the company’s chief engineer, perfected the machines.
At its peak, Horn & Hardart, through its Automats, the waiter-less cafeterias that often accompanied them and its retail shops, was feeding as many as 750,000 people a day.
The Automat, which first opened in Philadelphia, was democratic, because its tables accommodated customers from every class. It replaced the free lunch at saloons shuttered by Prohibition. The chrome and brass vending machines framed by Italian marble conveyed cleanliness, because the workers who prepared the food were invisible behind the spinning steel drums that fed the machines. Patrons could choose exactly which piece of pie or crock of baked beans they preferred (all of which were prepared at a commissary on 11th Avenue).
In a doctoral dissertation at Cornell University, Alec Tristin Shuldiner noted that compared with Philadelphians, New Yorkers wanted more sugar in their stewed tomatoes, favored seafood, except for oysters, craved clam chowder and chicken pies, and eschewed scrapple.
With no cash registers, the cost of several courses was never computed (the eight rows of windows at the library, borrowed from Steve Stollman of Ellenville, N.Y., and restored, advertise chicken potpie for two nickels; during the exhibition the machines will dispense recipes of Automat favorites for free). Tipping, originally rejected by Americans as an anti-democratic gesture that validated class distinctions, was superfluous, and therefore saved customers money. (Smoking was not allowed, either.)
The writer Alfred Kazin recalled his daily routine with the historian Richard Hofstadter: “We’d work all morning at the New York Public Library, eat lunch at the Automat across the street, play one game of Ping-Pong — at which he’d beat me — at a pool parlor on 42nd Street. Then we’d work the rest of the day.”
Even as homeless people began congregating at Automats (Edward Hopper’s famous 1927 painting of a lone woman at a cafeteria was titled “Automat,” but doesn’t look like one), customers were typically allowed to linger over a half-full cup of coffee or homemade lemonade (free water and a lemon) or tomato soup (hot water with ketchup).
But the Automats eventually fell victim to a changing culture, the profusion of even faster food joints, and the limits of the patented mechanical dispensers that accepted only nickels and quarters in their slots. In a sense, said Andrew Pastore, installation coordinator at the library, they were trapped by their own technology.
They were famous for the coffee that gushed from silver dolphin spigots (Horn & Hardart introduced fresh-drip brewed coffee instead of the boiled version and a new batch was brewed every 20 minutes). But by the early 1950s, the company was losing 2 or 3 cents on every cup it sold. When the price was doubled to a dime, sales fell to 45 million cups a year from 70 million.
The last Automat (there were several successor imitations), at East 42nd Street and Third Avenue, closed in 1991.
The New York Public Library houses a collection of Horn & Hardart papers, including those of Robert F. Byrnes, who started with the company as an office boy and retired 63 years later, in 1988, as executive vice president.
The playwright Neil Simon once wrote of his Automat memories, recalling that he learned more from his dining partners there than during three years at Princeton:
“And the years went by and I turned from a day customer to a night patron, working on those first attempts at monologues and sketches at two in the morning, over steaming black coffee and fresh cheese Danish. And a voice from the stranger opposite me.
“‘Where you from? California?’
“‘No. I grew up in New York.’
“‘Is that so? Where in New York?’
“‘At this table.’”