Automat

Automat, first opened in New York 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.

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 the dishes 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. 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.”