The clamor and chaos of lunch hour in New York has been a defining feature of the city for some 150 years. Visitors, newly arrived immigrants, and even longtime New Yorkers are struck by the crowds, the rush, and the dizzying range of foods on offer. Of the three meals that mark the American day, lunch is the one that acquired its modern identity here on the streets of New York.
Colonial American mealtimes were originally based on English rural life, with a main meal known as “dinner” in the middle of the day. The word “lunch” referred to a snack that might be eaten at any time of the day or night, even on the run. But during the 19th century, under the pressures of industrialization, this meal pattern began to change. Nowhere was the change more dramatic than in New York, the burgeoning center for trade, manufacturing, and finance. Employees were given a fixed time for their midday meal, often a half hour or less. So, dinner was pushed to the end of the day, and lunch settled into a scheduled place on the clock between the hours of twelve and two.
Lunch Hour NYC looks back at more than a century of New York lunches, when the city’s early power brokers invented what was yet to be called “power lunch,” local charities established a 3-cent school lunch, and visitors with guidebooks thronged Times Square to eat lunch at the Automat. Drawing on materials from throughout the Library, the exhibition explores the ways in which New York City—work-obsessed, time-obsessed, and in love with ingenious new ways to make money—reinvented lunch in its own image.