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Food for Thought

Before the Big Mac: Horn & Hardart Automats

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115 East 14th Street. March 1933.
credit: Robert Byrnes Collection of Automat Memorabilia
Ask anyone about the "Big Mac" and immediately one imagines an image of a double hamburger on a sesame seed bun. The golden arches are everywhere.  On Broadway and 42nd Street, New York City boasts one of the largest McDonald's in metropolitan America. 

Say the words "Horn & Hardart," you will probably get a different reaction.  Go back thirty years or more...

Horn & Hardart Automats were a common sight around the city.  This was the place to go for a meal known for its Automat service. In the early days, a customer would walk up to a multitude of small glass windows, toss some nickles into a slot and have access to a prepared meal.

80 East 42nd Street. Air Line Terminal. January 1955.
credit: Robert Byrnes Collection of Automat Memorabilia
In the Beginning...

The Horn & Hardart Company was founded by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart in Philadelphia, 1902.  Frank Hardart, inspired during his visit to Europe of the "waiterless" restaurants, purchased the equipment in Berlin.  The ship transporting the equipment sunk but Hardart was not deterred. He reordered the equipment that safely arrived in the United States.

Together with his partner Joseph Horn, Hardart was ready for business. When the restaurant opened in Philadelphia, the public was in awe of receiving one's food from a self contained glass enclosure after depositing several nickles.  This success led them to open up the first automat in New York City at 1557 Broadway on 42nd Street, in 1912.

New Yorkers and the Automat 

New Yorkers loved the Automat and the success led Horn and Hardart to open up Automats throughout the city.  Originally, the coins were dispensed by women cashiers or "nickle throwers."  The coins tarnished the women's hands so they were required to wear black uniforms.

Opened Tues. Oct. 8, 1940. Original interior. 200 East 42nd Street.
credit: Robert Byrnes Collection of Automat Memorabilia
Horn and Hardarts were known for their sophisticated restaurants, Art Deco architecture and attractive seating arrangements. This was a place where you would meet a friend for a meal, read your newspaper and enjoy a cigarette. Food was uniform in taste, so when you purchased a sandwich or enjoyed the famous baked beans, (as recollected by Arthur Schwartz of the Food Maven) the taste and quality remained consistent.

Eventually, Horn & Hardart faced stiff competition from the rise of the fast food industry.  Some of the Automats were converted to Burger Kings and Arby's as part of the company's holdings. On April 8, 1991, the last of New York City's automats closed on 200 East 42nd Street.

200 East 42nd Street. Opened Aug. 12, 1958.
credit: Robert Byrnes Collection of Automat Memorabilia
Comeback?

Will the Automat make a comeback? In Germany, Aldi Süd, a German discount supermarket is now turning out freshly baked bread from an automat machine much to the consternation of the country's bakers. Germany is also home to Bagger's, a fully automated restaurant in Nuremberg. Opened in 2008, Bagger's offers patrons the opportunity to select a meal from a touch tone screen.  The food, in a covered lid, slides down a conveyor belt with identifiying labels for the patron.  

In the United States, a Chock Full o'Nuts coffee shop, another staple of more than thirty years ago, recently opened on 23rd Street between Fifth and 6th Avenue.   The Automat will probably not return in its old form, but an inventive entrepreneur may decide to give it a 21st century spin.  

There is much more to learn about Horn & Hardart Automats. Interested in learning more about Automats?  Consider the following:

The Automat / Lorraine B. Diehl and Marianne Hardart. 

Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan's Lost Places of Leisure / David Freeland

Robert F. Byrnes Collection of Automat Memorabilia, 1912-1990s bulk (1940-1960s)

Search "Automat" in the Menu Collection

Search "Automat" in the Digital Gallery

Do you remember dining at Horn & Hardart, Schrafft's or the original Chock Full o'Nuts?  What about Mary Elizabeth's, once located within walking distance from the New York Public Library on 42nd Street?

As you ponder the past and the future enjoy this video "Just Drop it in the Slot; a Look at the Horn & Hardart and Its Legacy" by Alan G. Wasenius.

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Automats

Thanks for this nice post. The Manuscripts and Archives Division is one of the great resources of NYC, and your staff is incredible. I think I may have been one of the first researchers to draw extensively upon the Byrnes Collection. It's truly a wonderful collection, because Mr. Byrnes kept everything, from the time he was a stockboy in the 1920s to the 1980s when he retired as an executive. One thing that I find interesting is that there was an automat in NYC prior to Horn & Hardart. It opened just south of Union Square in 1902 and was quite elegant, serving highballs and other mixed drinks. But it seems as if the European owners ran out of money, as the establishment went under within a few years of opening. Also, back to Horn & Hardart, a small remnant of the original Art Nouveau ceiling decoration can still be seen at the 1557 Broadway site today, between 46th and 47th streets. The space is now Grand Slam, a souvenir emporium.

Robert Byrnes and the Automat

Thank you for your comments about the Manuscripts and Archives Division, the staff and the New York Public Library. Yes, we have Mr. Byrnes to thank for carefully documenting the H & H's throughout the City. Mr. Byrnes photographs offer a window to New York City's past. I didn't know about the European Automat, it may not have had a mass appeal as the H & H's. The next time that I'm over near 1557 Broadway, I'll look at the ceiling of Grand Slam. The public may be interested to know that the Landmark Commission granted landmark status to the H & H building at 2710 Broadway at 104th St in 2007. LandMark West! the Committee to preserve the Upper West Side was the major advocate for landmark status.

Misspelling

I loved the Automat and was saddened by its demise. I applaud the NYPL Manuscripts and Archives Division, and I enjoyed your illustrated article, above. But why do you misspell "nickel" as "nickle"?

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