top of page

A Communal Experience

Last Monday started off quite spectacular. And that was because it was something we all enjoyed together (well, most of us, anyway.). We got to witness a solar eclipse! Probably the last-in-a-generation solar eclipse, because the next one won't be in North America until 2088. Or, we can see one again in 2044. Hopefully, the vast majority of us will still be around in 2044, but many others won't be, so this one was quite special for those who've lived long enough to see it. I know I got to see TWO eclipses in my lifetime, once in 2017, and now a week ago. And you bet your dollars that yours truly was not going to miss out on seeing this eclipse! I decided to make it an afternoon excursion in DC - I packed a blanket, some water, some snacks, several of my furries, and headed off to the Washington Monument. Along the way, I got a scone for a snack and a salad for lunch. By the time I got to the monument, there was plenty of space available in the perfect spot, and I had enough time to enjoy my salad before the eclipse began. Once it did, I put on my trusty eclipse glasses (for those of you who didn't, shame on you!) and enjoyed the show. And it was amazing to see the sun and the moon come together, bit by bit, minute by minute. While DC didn't reach totality, we did get 80% of the eclipse, which in layman's terms is like a fingernail eclipse. And we all watched in awe as it reached near-totality. We clapped, cheered, hooted, and stood there in silence as we witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime moment for the next 4.5 minutes. I gotta tell you, I was so glad to be a part of this eclipse, along with so many others who saw it in DC. Or even in the rest of North America. One of my friends works at NASA and was able to see totality... in Montreal! It was one of those moments where everyone of us got to enjoy this moment, and it may not come around like this again in our lifetime, so we truly appreciated it. I've heard stories about how people would leave office buildings, construction sites, hospitals, and more just to look at the eclipse. And I've even heard of how people shared eclipse glasses with one another so that they wouldn't miss this view and be left out. By the time we reached near-totality, there were plenty of people on the Washington Monument lawn and the National Mall who were so happy and excited to be a part of this moment. It was if this moment was perfectly planned for all of us to just stop, come together, and enjoy this collectively as human beings, just God intended. And that got me to thinking: Whatever happened to moments like this? Where we can all come together and just enjoy a collective experience like an eclipse? No natural disasters, no terrorist attacks, no hate crime, no violence, but just moments of pure beauty and majesty up in the heavens and admiring it all without any sort of division or hierarchy. Even thinking about this more, why do we need moments like this where we can come together as human beings and enjoy the kindness of strangers, talk about the eclipse, and our lives without fear? This shouldn't have to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing where we need to be reminded of our humanity and how much we are all alike. It should be a DAILY thing. And it can be something as simple as sharing a meal together. You probably already know that I'm a big history buff, and I always get fascinated by the past, particularly how we dressed (which, in my humble opinion, is a LOT better than how we're dressing now, but that's for another blog!), what music we listened to, and what we ate. I tend to forget that while things were simpler back then, it wasn't as good for everybody. Certain groups of people were often left out or downright mistreated for wanting the same rights as the Caucasian men simply because they were women or the color of their skin was different from theirs or they spoke a different language. But there was one piece of history that I've gotten to be fascinated by lately, and it has a eerie connection to the way we experienced the eclipse. Can you guess what that is? I'll give you a hint: It's a place where you go to eat a good, warm meal. And you only need a nickel to eat whatever you want at your heart's content. That's right! It's the automat!

Somehow, my trips to NYC and the fascination with the past got me to doing some researching on this unique eatery, and how even food was a lot better then than it is now. It was also more affordable, but that's a whole different story for a different day. And here's the thing that makes going to the automat unique: It was like a cafeteria, where there was open seating and you could be having conversations with just about anyone - construction workers, office managers, Jewish rabbis, performers coming from a show, lawyers, families, you name it! And it just so happened that there were all there to share a meal together. No need to fear one another or be disgruntled. It was often good to have meals together and not just take your food to go like nowadays. Automats seemed to have the one thing we humans crave the most on a daily basis, and it's not easily solved online or though Uber Eats: COMMUNITY. Sometimes, the idea of food bringing random people together in eateries like the automat has been lost in recent years due to COVID, but there's a lot we can learn from this iconic NYC venture and how it can recaptured again. Not so much in bringing back the automats themselves (though, there is an effort to do that), but in how valuable community is when we all sit at the table. Grab a bite to eat, sit back, and enjoy this history lesson.

The first automat didn't actually appear in the U.S., but in Europe. Germany, to be exact. It was called Quisisana (named after the food company that manufactured food vending machinery), and it opened to the public in 1895. This high tech eatery soon spread to other cities in Europe, and it caught the attention of Jospeh Horn and Frank Hardart in the late 19th century, who would later license the technology used in the automats in Europe and open the first automat in Philadelphia in 1902. A sales representative from Quisisana's machinery approached Horn and Hardart about using their devices in the United States, and Hardart visited Quisisana during a vacation in Germany. After seeing the automat technology in action, both Horn and Hardart arranged to have these machines shipped to the United States for their new restaurant. The first time the machinery was shipped it actually sank to the bottom of the ocean due to a shipping mishap off the coast of England, and so they had to request the machinery again, and thankfully, it arrived safely to the United States without any incident. However, the machinery was damaged in an explosion at the building where they were stored. After some tinkering to repair the machines, the first automat opened on 09 June 1902 at 818 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. This novel restaurant quickly became popular with customers, and the eager guests flooded the restaurant the very first day. Soon after its arriving in Philadelphia, automats began taking off in NYC, with the first Horn and Hardart location opening in 1912 in Times Square. (Think of Times Square BEFORE the lights and electronic advertisements for a minute.) Before long, there were over 40 Horn and Hardart automats in NYC, and at the peak of their success, there were locations in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Automats were a luxury for those who couldn't afford the sit-down fancy restaurants, and it offered a nice, hot meal for everyone who could afford it. But I know what you're thinking: How does an automat work, exactly? Well, it's pretty simple. Customers would exchange their dollar bills for handfuls of nickels from female cashiers in glass booths (and the cashiers had to wear rubber tips on their fingers), and then they would insert the required change into a machine in the dining room, turn the knob, and the food would be ready - nice, hot, and fresh! (A lot of times the food was in wrapping paper.) You can't say that you get fresh food nowadays from takeout, can you? And you also can't say that you get foods like these from takeout - Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, cherry pie, Mac & cheese, pot pies, steak, soups, you name it! The best thing about these foods? They're made fresh every day, and as you look through the glass in the machines, you can judge for yourself what food looks appetizing and looks the best based on how it's prepared. There was even a step-by-step instructions on how to prep, cook, and plate the food for the behind the scenes workers in the kitchens so that they can always come out fresh and be monitored to ensure its freshness. And if there was leftover food, it was taken to what was called "day-old" outlets, and sold for cut-price. And here's a really awesome perk for all you coffee lovers out there: Horn and Hardart was the first to offer freshly brewed coffee for five cents a cup. FIVE FREAKIN' CENTS! And their coffee was actually pretty good compared the bitter coffee served at other places in NYC. Remember what I said about the automat being in a cafeteria like setting? You get the chance to sit down with your warm, fresh food, and strike up conversations with people you know, or random strangers. It offered the chance to see more beyond your neighborhood, or even just your peripheral vision, when you sit down to a meal. You didn't have to rush, be held up, or bothered. Children could actually pick what they wanted without any problems. No more picky eaters! And it was a place where everyone, no matter what your social class was, could sit down to a meal. In fact, in 1905, a Mrs. Joseph Widener threw an "automat party," where the usual fare of pot pies, meatloaf, and pies were replaced with pate de foie gras, terrapin, and champagne. In 1960, Jack Benny actually threw a black-tie party at an automat. Stars like Gregory Peck, Gene Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, and Audrey Hepburn dined there a lot. Audrey Hepburn said she preferred automats to the fancy sit down restaurants that the stars often frequent. And here's another perk to the automats - You don't have to deal with waiters! Seriously, everyone who prepped and cooked the food, as well as washed the dishes, all worked BEHIND the scenes so that they weren't seen in the general public. So, in essence, the automat served as the perfect formula for communal dining, especially in NYC for the businesses and its workers to have a chance to sit down and eat a good meal for lunch, or even for Broadway and nightclub performers to come and have a late night repast after doing their shows. It was a good time for automats... Or was it? While automats were all the rage for much of the late 19th and 20th centuries, there was the occasional problems that went on behind the scenes and in the dining room. For starters, Horn and Hardart hired plenty of workers to be in the kitchen prepping, cooking, and handling the food and cleaning the silverware for a seemingly flawless presentation, but they got away with paying lower than average salaries for the workers. AFL-CIO took notice of this, and this lead to two strikes for better wages, one in 1937, and again in 1958. And while the automat was one of the best places to grab a meal, it wasn't perfect. This place was the setting for a wide range of urban social experiences, and it often brought in the homeless to have a meal, or even steal items. One worker said that a homeless person stole over 60 silverware items at one of the Horn & Hardart locations in NYC. It was also a place where the unemployed could come in for a meal without being rushed out the door by employees because there were no waiters at the front of the automat monitoring who could be allowed to come in. And surprisingly, it was also a place where the most unlikely of suspects came in on a daily basis: Loneliness. As much as this place was fantastic for having a meal and taking your sweet time eating and enjoying some nice conversations, it also was a place where the singles would often hang out by themselves without companionship or camaraderie with other guests, probably in the wee hours of the morning (or anytime during the day). American painter Edward Hopper depicted this loneliness in his famous 1927 painting Automat, as seen below:

But despite these small disadvantages, the pros outweighed the cons for this eatery. Everyone enjoyed having a great meal for only five cents, endless coffee for only five cents a cup, and everyone got to take their time eating and talking with each other, no matter if you're related or not. Even unescorted women during the 1930s were able to dine here without needing chaperones because of how accessible it was. And it seemed destined to live forever... Alas! It was not meant to be. So, what caused the automats to disappear from the face of the earth? Well, I've give you a hint: It involves a Big Mac and a Whopper. As more and more people were moving to the suburbs in the late 1950s and early 1960s, automats were slowly starting to go into decline. City centers who relied on the urban workers and people who lived in places like NYC and Philadelphia were going through an atrophy, not to mention inflation, which forced Horn and Hardart to raise the price of coffee to two nickels after decades of five cent coffee. (Compare that to over $10.00 for a caramel macchiato, I would rather they go back to those prices!) Things got really bad in the 1970s when fast food chains like McDonald's, KFC, and Burger King were being introduced in the markets. People simply didn't have time to sit down and have a meal during their lunch breaks anymore, and they simply couldn't take a meatloaf or cherry pie to go from Horn and Hardart. In fact, people were less than inclined to sit down and enjoy a meal like in the earlier 20th century. They wanted something that was more portable and easy to eat in the lunch break rooms. Something like burgers and fries or fried chicken and biscuits. To make matters worse, as automats struggled to keep up with the rapid popularity of fast food restaurants, forcing Horn and Hardart to lay off 25% of their employees in order to keep their costs low. And not only that, their quality went downhill as well. Rather than preparing foods fresh like they have done for decades, they were using frozen foods, and believe me when I say this, customers took notice of the decline in quality. I think the fiscal crisis in NYC in the 1970s also had something to do with it as well. People preferred to bring their meals to the office from home. No more leisurely trips to Horn and Hardart for a meal. No more fresh meatloaf, soups, mac and cheese, cherry pies, steak, and other good foods. No more five cent coffee a cup. And worst of all... No more community. The first Horn and Hardart on 818 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia closed on 28 December 1968, after over 66 years in operation. Many of the automat locations in NYC closed and were transformed into Burger Kings. By 1977, the remaining automat had become a tourist attraction and place of nostalgia for those who remembered the "good ole' days." The last Horn and Hardart on Third Avenue and 42nd Street finally went out of business in 1991... And so ended the glorious era of the automat. One of the reasons why I'm so fascinated by automats was how nice it was to have a nice hot meal and not have to leave so quickly to enjoy eating eat. Or even wait so long for it to be prepared and served at your table like normal restaurants. And with the automats being in a cafeteria setting, it made it easier to enjoy the company of random strangers without any fear or prejudice (I could be wrong on both counts as I don't know how often people from different classes mixed with each other to have conversations about their day to day lives.) And you can actually judge at how good and fresh it is by looking into the glass and viewing the delicious morsels for yourselves. Somehow, in the past few years, we've forgotten how important it was to have community on a regular basis in settings like an automat or cafeteria. But maybe we've also forgotten how to be kind, understanding, and patient with random strangers at restaurants or eateries. We've had to defend ourselves, sometimes for good reason - crime and violence being a big factor - and keep to ourselves without drawing attention for the wrong reason. And we've even taken the idea of sitting down to a meal at a restaurant or cafeteria as something to balk at - again, sometimes for good reason. Things like COVID, violence, poor overall business hygiene, bad food quality, and frequent takeout and delivery services like Uber Eats, DoorDash, and more are making things like sitting down to a meal a little bit precarious and sometimes harmful than in the earlier 20th century, or at least since 2019. And it's also making it harder to remember that food is what brings people together - no matter what the social class, race, or job title a person has. Somehow, the automat got it right with having things like fresh food, innovative machinery, and community that allows people to come together and enjoy a meal and engage in conversation with one another and just listen with patience, understanding, and kindness. Maybe there was apprehension of talking with a random stranger at a place like Horn and Hardart, but maybe there was also a bit of willingness to just listen to each other, and be accepting of who that person is, without judgment or prejudice. Someone had to take the first step, and maybe from that first step, they get to learn something about the world they didn't know about through another's eyes. All it took was a simple, everyday occurrence like sitting down to a meal to help them see it. We can't always agree on everything, but we can agree that food does bring people together. And it also brings something else that's severely lacking nowadays... COMMUNITY. And online chat rooms or message boards aren't enough. In-person communities matter just as much as online. There's nothing like talking to a real human being over a meal without any pretense or fear. The automat got it right. (I'm always fascinated by history, and how much of an impact it makes on our lives, especially in how much of it has been repeating in knowing and unknowing ways. While I'm grateful for my appreciation and growing fascination with the past, I will remind you that these are my observations and reflections on the past and how it links with the present. I'm not a certified historian by any means, nor am I 100% right on my observations and reflections. You are welcome to disagree with me on anything I say, but I won't tolerate any offensive language, disrespect, or bad behavior between my readers. If it gets to that point, I will block you.)

As I've said earlier, life may have been simpler, but it wasn't necessarily good for everyone. And the same applies to the automat. I don't know if these places allowed blacks, Asians, Muslims, Jewish, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, indigenous peoples, or other races to dine there as the Caucasians. I don't know if women felt safe and respected in automats. I don't even know if food was the answer to all of the world's problems, especially in the case of the automat. But I do know this: We as a society have forgotten the practice of taking our time to sit down, enjoy a meal, converse with each other, and take our sweet time doing these things without being rushed.

Heaven knows I've done that myself. I get it: You're worried about viruses inside the dining establishment, loud, raucous customers interrupting your experience, violence in your neighborhood, food not properly being cooked or stored, or even just bad customer service. But I hope that we as a society remember that we don't need things like a solar eclipse to bring us together to be reminded of our humanity. Or tragedies like the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsing or the Boston Marathon bombings from 2013 or even 9/11 to remind us that we are more alike than we realize and we can come together to help one another. It can be just as simple as sitting down to a meal together, and we need to do this on a regular basis, not just when the news is hot off the press. Here's what I think: I think the automats need to make a comeback. Seriously. We need more places that have cafeteria settings where we can all sit together and get to know one another, despite our social class, race, and job titles. We need to have freshly made food - more than burgers and fries and fried chicken and biscuits - that can be seen and we can enjoy. We need to have ways where the food is affordable for everyone, and it's easy to retrieve without waiting for the waiters or staff to bring it out to us. But we especially need the community. Now, I know I'm naive here, and I may be a dreamer about a simpler time gone by. But even in the not-so-simple times, there are some instances where the past got it right: Slowing down (even having businesses closed on a Sunday). Enjoying leisurely Sunday drives and picnics. Sitting down to a meal at a table. And being in a community without fear, prejudice, or division. In person, without being online all the time. The automat got it right. I hope there's a way it can be brought back soon, because we need the community more than ever when sharing a meal together. We just need community, period. And a good fresh slice of cherry pie wouldn't hurt, either. Special thanks to the following articles and resources for my research on the history of the automats: *Untapped New York: The Lost Automats and Cafeterias of NYC *ThoughCo.: The Rise and Fall of the Automat *History Associates Incorporated: A Dining Experience to Remember: A Brief History of the Automat *Wikipedia: Automat

10 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page