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Remember the Automat

Once a staple of the Manhattan lunch scene, the automat sees new life as a replica for an exhibit about lunch.

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Wikimedia Commons

The automat, the purposely impersonal restaurant concept that, at least in America, has long since been confined to its status as an early 20th century relic, is being recreated at the New York Public Library for Lunch Hour NYC, an exhibit on the city's lunch history.

A "fast food" concept where meals are delivered entirely by vending machine, the automat was born in 1880s Europe. The idea eventually traveled to America, first reaching Philadelphia in 1902. New York would get its first automat 10 years later, with Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart opening dozens of Horn & Hardart kiosks across the city, serving as many as 750,000 people a day.

The automat's affordability, efficiency, and reputation for high sanitation made it an inviting space for a rapidly urbanizing world. It served as a backdrop in multiple film scenes in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. 

Sadie McKee, 1934. A woman, down on her luck, lusts after a stranger's half-eaten slice of pie.

Thirty Day Princess, 1934. A struggling actress is spotted by two men looking for someone to impersonate a European princess. She doesn't realize that and runs away from them, leaving an unexpected stranger with her meal (sans turkey leg).

Easy Living, 1937. 1930s physical comedy ensues after an employee tries to help a woman get free food.

A Run For Your Money, 1949. The film takes place in London, its automat apparently more antiquated than the typical American one.

Just This Once, 1952. Lucille Duncan (Janet Leigh) has been hired to oversee the finances of a young playboy who gets $1,000,000 a year from a trust, but spends recklessly. A lunch at the Automat is supposed to teach Mark frugality, but he tips an employee $10 ($86.72 adjusted to inflation) to save a table.

The Catered Affair, 1956. Jane (Debbie Reynolds) and Ralph (Rod Taylor) are planning to get married, but money is an issue. Jane's parents are poor, but Frank's are well-off, proud of the big weddings they've given their daughters. Jane decides she wants a big wedding but knows Ralph is reluctant. At the automat, he gives in.

Dark City, 1998. A neo-noir science fiction movie features a dystopian automat. The movie came out 7 years after the last Horn & Hardart automat closed. 

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By the end of the 1950s, automats disappeared from American film culture, returning only in a historical context decades later. During that time, the fast food culture we're more familiar with today took hold, providing easy car access for an increasingly suburbanizing work force. At the same time, automats failed to evolve, making coin-only payments a nuisance as food prices increased.

The last Horn & Hardart automat closed in 1991. Bamn! tried to revisit the concept with a more contemporary look and menu in 2006, only to close three years later. 

That's not to say the automat is completely dead. FEBO, in business since 1941, is still a popular 'automatiek' chain in the Netherlands, and was even paid a visit by Anthony Bourdain on a recent visit to Amsterdam.

In America, however, your best glimpse of an automat for now appears to be the replica inside the New York Public Library. Lunch Hour NYC runs from Friday, June 22 through Sunday, February 17, 2013.

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