Marilyn Monroe and the Automat

The Automat

“A kiss may be grand but it won’t pay the rental on your humble flat, or help you at the AUTOMAT” “

It may come as a surprise to a generation raised on hamburgers, french fries, and ersatz milk shakes, but McDonald’s did not invent fast food. Neither did Burger King, Wendy’s, or Kentucky Fried Chicken. That distinction belongs to a firm now known far better by those who are nostalgic for the lost past of New York City than by french fry addicts: Horn and Hardart, originator of the Automat.

The Automat holds a special place in the history of American restaurants. Many of its locations were beautifully decorated in art deco style. It appears in paintings by Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper and in at least two songs: “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee” (by Irving Berlin) and “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” (which was sung by MARILYN MONROE).

Horn and Hardart’s Automat, founded in Philadelphia in 1902 and opened in New York ten years later, was once the world’s largest restaurant chain with, at its peak, 180 shops serving 800,000 customers a day. Unlike any other restaurant before or since, the Automat was nothing less than a giant vending machine, dispensing fresh, tasty, and inexpensive food from compartments behind small windows (as in the photo above). The establishment was essentially a self-service restaurant or cafeteria. Each compartment was opened by dropping one or more nickels in its slot. The Automat was not really “automatic,” however. Whenever a customer removed an item from its compartment, it was quickly replaced by a human being who worked behind the scenes.

What accounted for the Automat’s popularity? It was modern and high-tech in its day. The food was fresh, inexpensive and fast, and the fact that it was kept in glass-fronted compartments gave customers confidence in the restaurant’s cleanliness and sanitation. It was also a novelty and dropping nickels in the slots was endlessly entertaining for children and even for adults who did not eat there frequently.

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