Growing Up in the 50’s: The Automat

I grew up in a suburb about 15 miles west of New York City. For my family it might just as well have been 1500 miles. Neither of my parents commuted. Public transportation in the town I lived in was limited to a bus to Paterson.

To my father New York might have been the name of one of Dante’s circles. He may have passed through Manhattan on his way to a ballgame but that was about it. My mother would take me into the city occasionally, showing me things like the Museum of Natural History, the UN and Radio City. She also brought me to an eye specialist when I was a first grader for treatment of a lazy eye condition.

What do I remember about those trips to New York City with my mother? The automat. Every venture ended at one of them.

The automat at 877 Eighth Avenue may well have been one of the ones I enjoyed with my mom.

The automats were mostly in big open spaces with cafe tables. There would be at least one wall of glass fronted cubes, maybe 6X8 inches. You put coins in a slot, opened the glass door, and pulled out your food. Like a vending machine? Not quite because there was a kitchen on the other side of that wall and staff was filling and refilling each compartment with freshly prepared food, appropriately hot or cold.

What did I eat at the automat? I have no idea, although I remember my mom liked the coffee. For me, it was all about the process and as a kid, I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else.

Older New Yorkers may be surprised to learn that the idea for the automat came from Germany. The first automat, named Quisisana, opened in Berlin in 1895. When Philadelphia restaurateur Joe Horn visited after the turn of the century, he bought into the technology and he and his partner Frank Hardart opened the first Horn & Hardart Automat in Philadelphia in 1902. Here’s how the Philadelphia Inquirer (June 10, 1902) described America’s first automat:

“Horn and Hardart have solved the rapid transit luncheon problem by opening a restaurant called the Automat, at 818-821 Chestnut Street. It is a mammoth nickel-in-the-slot scheme, and the only one of its kind in the United States. Heretofore, the man with one minute and thirty-seven seconds for lunch has fumed while a waiter has been getting his order. In the Automat all this is changed. If a patron’s lunch is not forthcoming speedily it will only be because he is unable to decide, oft hand, whether he wants one of a large assortment of sandwiches, pies, coffee, soup, ice cream and the unusual variety of quick lunch fare….

“There was a great rush at the Automat yesterday, and its success will doubtless continue as the service is as neat as it is rapid.”

Two Ladies at the Automat, NYC
Two Ladies at the Automat, NYC, 1966 photo by Diane Arbus

The first New York automat opened in 1912. Eventually there would be 40 of them in the city. Despite being confined to Philadelphia and New York, it became America’s largest chain eatery. The New York Daily News (Sunday, May 15, 1921) offered this colorful description of the volume of food served up at the automats:

“Automats feed 100,000 people a day, enough to fill the Hippodrome, with a capacity of about 5,000, twenty times. 

“Used 9,000 eggs a day. If placed in a line would reach 2,200  feet or 7 times as high as the Statue of Liberty.

“Use 18,000 pies a week — enough to cover the grass in City Hall Park. 

“Use 11,000 loaves of bread a week for sandwiches alone —  placed in a line would be twice as long as Brooklyn Bridge.”

It is not just the food or the technology that automat patrons remember fondly. It is also celebrated as a place for everyone. Race, mother tongue and social status mattered little. The same Daily News article cited above noted: “At the Automat restaurant at 1241 Broadway I saw a theatrical gentleman, evidently in reduced circumstances, lunching on a cinnamon bun and a cup of coffee.” It was also kind of a predecessor to the modern coffee shop. You could buy a cup of coffee and sit there with it for hours. That is, perhaps what Edward Hopper was thinking when he created his famous “Automat” painting.

Automat, Edward Hopper

What happened to the automat? Ultimately it was replaced by a different sort of fast food restaurant, the McDonald’s and Burger Kings. (I can’t imagine that decades from now anyone is going to wax nostalgic about a Burger King.) There are many other reasons offered to explain the decline. One is the much despised decision in 1950 to raise the price of a cup of coffee from five cents to ten cents, though it is also noted that before that increase Horn and Hardart was losing money on every cup of coffee they sold. Inflation in general made the “nickel-in-the-slot” approach impractical. (How many rolls of nickels would it take to buy a meal in a New York City restaurant today.) Hard economic times in the 1970’s may have taken their toll and it has been suggested that cost-cutting impacted the quality of the food.

The last automat closed in New York City in 1991. There have been and continue to be attempts to revive them, most only lasting a couple of years. There is a website by a company calling itself Horn and Hardart that sells “automat” coffee.

I am hardly alone in fondly remembering the automat of my childhood. A recent documentary “The Automat,” which is currently streaming on HBO Max, offers up the similarly fond reflections of Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell and former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, among others.


Some other “Growing Up in the 50’s” posts:

The Corner Store

Christmas Time in Paterson

Thinking in Ethnic Slurs

The Night Two Guys Burned Down

A Decade of DIY

Tricky Dick on Main Street

Bomb Scare!

The Shop


This entry was posted in Growing Up in the 50s, History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Growing Up in the 50’s: The Automat

  1. retrosimba says:

    The documentary you cited is as well done as your article. Thanks for a terrific piece about a true gem. Like you, I was fortunate to have experienced the automat on trips from Mew Jersey to Manhattan with my mother.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A small neon Automat sign is on the Walnut Street building that housed Philly’s first automat.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I saw a few of them when I was in NY in 2008 and was impressed (I think I bought a donut) as we don’t have such things in California. Didn’t see another one until I was in the Netherlands a decade later.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Growing Up in the 50’s : The Automat | Mon site officiel / My official website

  5. GP says:

    I remember going here. I asked to eat there, my mom was so disappointed, she thought I would go for one of the fantastic restaurants in NYC. Dad was thrilled, he got off cheap that day! 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  6. sportsdiva64 says:

    You’re bringing back memories here talking about Horn and Hardarts. I lived in Harlem at the time and I would go to this very location with family members.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It may interest you (or not) to know my surname is also Dowell. I find the automat fascinating, having grown up in Texas and never seeing one of these things. You have a wide variety of intriguing subjects on this blog, and I look forward to diving in.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Donna Janke says:

    Very interesting article on automats. I don’t remember ever experiencing one.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Growing Up in the 50’s: Nedick’s | off the leash

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