“The Maxim’s of the Disenfranchised”: Automats in the Cultural Imagination of New York

Hannah Begley, Sophia Dahab, Julie Hunter, and Bobby Smiley

Around six o’clock on the evening of Tuesday, April 9, 1991, the last automat restaurant in New York City locked its doors for its final day of business. Although a small sign on the entrance read, “Closed for alterations,” restaurant regulars, employees—and indeed probably most New Yorkers—knew that the city’s sole remaining Horn and Hardart automat, situated on East 42nd street near Grand Central, would be permanently shuttered. For nearly ninety years, the waiterless restaurants—better known to all as automats—were a fixture of the daily reality and cultural imagination of New Yorkers. Inevitably associated with the Horn and Hardart company of Philadelphia, automats were emblematic of their time and place: a product of a dynamic age in American history, where an earnest belief in the good machine could demonstrate how automation—which had so changed the process of assembly and distribution of other goods—could serve the average consumer on the go a good cup of coffee and a filling, high quality meal. In the words of the Horn and Hardart slogan, the automat promised “less work for mother.”

The idea of the automat originated in Germany at the end of the 19th century, and found its way across the Atlantic at the turn of the 20th century. Two restaurateurs, Joseph V. Horn and Frank Hardart—who had started a pioneering commissary and catering business a few decades earlier—opened the nation’s first automat at 818 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. Given their success, Horn and Hardart eventually decided that they could break into the New York market. On June 9, 1912, the first Horn and Hardart automat opened at 1557 Broadway, between 46th and 47th. A contemporary article in Architecture and Design, described “the very interesting façade of terra-cotta and ornamental glass” and the automatic serving machines located on the back wall. To the playwright Neil Simon, writing many years later, the average automat was, in his words, “a large, rectangular hall, filled with shiny, lacquered tables surrounding a glass booth, where the nimblest fingers on earth dispensed change for a quarter or a dollar in nickels…endless nickels, shiny nickels, magical nickels that were slipped into slots on the wall, and before your very eyes, an Open Sesame roll came around the bend of a glass cubicle.” Those nimble fingers belonged to women known popularly as “nickel throwers” whose rubber-tipped fingers would change currency into the 5 cent pieces that the customers used to purchase food from the glass faced chambers along the wall.

This “Maxim’s of the disenfranchised,” as Simon characterized them, captivated New Yorkers: from the city’s cultural elite of journalists—like Walter Winchell, artists—like Edward Hopper, and musicians—like Irving Berlin to the working class customers who made New York run. Indeed, Berlin, so inspired by the endless cups of perfectly brewed nickel coffee that was dispensed from the mouth of a chromed plated dolphin’s head—a design cribbed from Pompeian foundation—eventually composed musical paean to automats, “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee,” the unofficial theme song for Horn and Hardart. Edward Hopper captured the loneliness and existential angst of city life in his paintings set in automats. In her survey of the city, Changing New York, photographer Bernice Abbott, snapped scenes of how automats were such an integral part of New Yorkers daily lives. That deep sense of cultural embeddness was expressed in the post-war paintings of the photorealist artist, Richard Estes. For Estes as well as others, the automat embodied New York life—for indeed, it was difficult to imagine the city without it.

But during the 1960s, when Estes was painting, automats began their terminal decline. The quality of their food—which was scrupulously checked against recipes the company kept vaulted from competitors—began to slip and even the nickel coffee—upped to the dismay of many to 10 cents in 1950—began to taste wan and bitter. Losing out to fast food chains, like McDonalds and Burger King, the original purveyor of fast food, Horn and Hardart concluded they could no longer keep automats open. In 1945, there were 50 Horn and Hardart automats throughout city. By 1990 there were only two in the entire United States. When Horn and Hardart closed their last storefront just off Times Square in 1991, they not only shuttered a restaurant, they also truly ended an era for many New Yorkers.

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