Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Food Facts and Fads in History – The First Fast Food

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FYI: Enjoy a little bit of food history.

The first fast food restaurants were the Horn and Hardart Automats. The Swiss had invented a “waiterless restaurant” which had rectangular glass doors that opened by a knob. The customer would walk by the windows and select an item, insert a nickel and remove the cold food. Behind the doors, women would replenish the food when needed. Diners chose hot foods at buffet-style steam tables.

Often these windows were adorned with lavish decor. “Beautifully ornate with its mirrors, marble and marquetry, a 35-foot piece of Philadelphia’s 1902 Horn & Hardart is in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.”

“In huge rectangular halls filled with shiny, lacquered tables, women with rubber tips on their fingers—”nickel throwers,” as they became known, in glass booths gave customers the desired five-cent pieces required to operate the food machines in exchange for larger coins and paper money. ”

For diners who were really in such a rush, the company provided stand-up counters similar to those that banks provide for writing deposit slips. These people ate what became known as “perpendicular meals.”

The last Automat closed in New York City in 1991;  they had the reputation of serving clean, fresh food at a low cost and tipping was not required.

Meet Me At the Automat

By Carolyn Hughes Crowley

Smithsonian Magazine August 2001


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