NYPL Exhibitions

The Automat

The Automat was one of the wonders of New York. When Joe Horn and Frank Hardart opened their magnificent flagship on July 2, 1912—a two-story facade of stained glass, marble floors, and ornate carved ceilings, right in the middle of Times Square—the city was instantly captivated. Hungry? Drop a nickel in a slot, open the door to your chosen compartment, and pull your dish right out — a modern miracle! Sandwiches, hot dishes, and desserts were all freshly made, and the coffee was said to be the best in New York. By the 1940s there were Automat restaurants all over the city. Children and tourists adored them, office workers depended on them, retirees gathered in them, and New Yorkers with nothing to spend on lunch stirred free ketchup into hot water and called it soup.

Despite their charm, the famous machines were not solely responsible for the Automat’s popularity. Beginning in 1919 every Automat restaurant included a cafeteria; in fact, many of Horn & Hardart’s restaurants were only cafeterias, with no machines at all. What made H&H the most successful restaurant operation in the country was a commitment to excellent food, low prices, and handsome surroundings.

But the all-day crowds that swarmed the Automat began to disappear in the 1950s as city dwellers moved to the suburbs and many office buildings opened their own cafeterias. At the same time, food and labor costs soared, and the city closed a loophole that had allowed cafeteria customers to avoid sales tax. H&H was forced to raise prices, quality declined, and the once-resplendent restaurants grew seedy. The last of them shut down in 1991, but nobody who dropped a nickel in the slot ever forgot the Automat, and the name still resonates as a beloved fixture of New York culture.