In the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s Automats were a New York City dining staple for a hard-working lunch crowd, a modernist icon for a boundless machine-age future. At their height there were over three dozen in the city, serving 800,000 people a day. And nearly everyone who actually experienced Automats in their heyday says the same thing: They never forgot the thrill of being a kid at the Automat.
Created by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart in Philadelphia in 1902, coin-operated Automats were lovingly-designed Art Deco temples to modern efficiency. Sleek steel and glass vending machine grids displayed sandwiches and main dishes as well as desserts and sides, each in their own little boxes, square and even, clean and well-lit. You put a coin in the slot, opened the door and removed your food—which was reportedly quite good, as the founders took terrific pride in their craft.
Horn & Hardart/Lumitone Photography, New York via Wikimedia Commons
For some, it was the idea of choice, and the satisfaction of seeing exactly what you were about to select; the interactive aspect of putting a coin in the slot and unlocking a world of mac-and-cheese goodness; the mysterious disembodied hands whisking a hot meal into a tiny cubby from behind closed doors. It was like a magic show–with food.
Horn and Hardart first encountered the idea in Germany, where the vending machines were being designed by an engineer named Max Sielaff. Though they were already in wide use in Europe, America had been a tough sell. Horn and Hardart had a reputation for innovation. To them, bringing the concept to NYC seemed like a perfect fit. The first New York City Automat opened in Times Square in 1912.
Considered by many to be the precursor of fast food joints, Automats became a regular spot for journalists, actors and anyone who hadn’t the time to linger over a meal. You could see what you were getting. You didn’t have to tip. And their gee-whiz interactivity made them a huge hit with youngsters. The food was fresh, cheap and fast. The mac and cheese was an instant classic. And the coffee was reputed to be the best in town. Freshly brewed every 20 minutes, it cost only a nickel a cup.