Author: Ursula Dempsey
In addition to contributing to this blog I also write mymarilynmoments, a blog inspired by the wisdom and words of Golden Hollywood. I also run a styling business, zeldazonkstyling.com, that operates under the guiding principle of finding the best 'style for your style.'
You can visit my personal site here
January 17, 2015
Long before there was the golden arches, burger royalty or military chickens, there was the automat. However instead of bright neons, fluorescent lighting, paper plates and processed food think marble tables, wooden chairs, ornate chandeliers and fresh wholesome food. And not just burgers and fries either; the menu in fact had over 400 items to choose from, everything from creamed spinach (yuck) to huckleberry pie (yum, huckleberries are like blueberries only with slightly thicker skin and contain seeds giving them a crunchy texture). They were in a way the precursor to the vending machine only on a bigger – much bigger – scale. In glass-fronted compartments the food was all on view. Once you made your choice, you simply inserted a nickel into a coin slot, lifted said glass window that was hinged at the top, and removed your meal. Once a dish was removed, staff behind the machines simply refilled the space with a replacement dish. There were no waiters and you carried your food to your table cafeteria-style. Typically the machines only took nickels, (a five cent coin), so each automat had its own “nickel throwers”; women who sat behind glass booths and gave out the change needed to operate the food machines. There was no tipping and the food was cheap making them popular even during the Depression when mac and cheese, baked beans and creamed spinach, which still sounds awful, were the most popular buys. The seating was communal, making it ideal for single working gals, who at the turn of the century were a relatively new and fast growing breed, trying to establish their place in society.
The most popular chain was Horn and Hardart who opened the first automat in Philadelphia in 1902 and in 1912 opened one in New York City . They had a strict fresh food policy and were fanatical about quality control. They held regular spot checks; the founders and all the executives lunched daily from the Sample Table, or the ‘ulcer table’ as it was fondly called, and washed everything down with copious amounts of coffee – more on ‘joe’ later. No food was left at the end of each day, instead whatever had not been purchased was taken to low-income neighbourhoods and sold at a fraction of the cost.
So back to ‘joe’. Coffee, at a nickel a cup, was the most commonly ordered item. At the height of their popularity Horn & Hardart, who were responsible for introducing fresh drip-brewed coffee to the East, sold more than 90 million cups of freshly brewed coffee annually . Before this the coffee being drunk was a harsh, brackish drink that you had to clarify by boiling it interminably with eggshells (another yuck). Here again, despite how cheap the item was (from 1912 to 1950 it was a nickel a cup, no 3 euro coffee here I’m glad to report), quality control was paramount. After brewing a fresh batch of coffee a Horn & Hardart employee filled out a timecard, after 20 minutes whatever was unused was discarded and a new batch was brewed. The coffee was served in precise amounts at an exactly calibrated temperature from the mouth of a chrome dolphin, or pewter gargoyles in some more avant-garde establishments.
Quite a few scenes take place in a Horn & Hardart automat in That Touch of Mink after Doris Day is splashed and her dress ruined by Cary Grant and his fancy car. Her friend works as one of the faceless, but not handless, beings behind the window and much hilarity ensues, it’s a Day movie after all, once Doris has ordered and received her chicken pot pie, boiled potato, carrots, jello and cake.
Despite Gregory Peck’s claim that the “automat in New York has the best scrambled eggs in the world” they still fell out of favour with the public, thanks in part to the general fleeing to the suburbs, and the last Horn and Hardart closed its doors to business in 1991. Some of the franchises reopened as Burger King but they are as removed from the automat as Burger King is from royalty. Evolution, progress means we are constantly moving forward, but I for one think we are missing out and rather envy those folks who got their cheap fresh coffee delivered from something resembling a Pompeian fountain and got to eat like royals but pay pauper prices.