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Less Work for Mother
by Bob Brooke

 

The 1950s were a time of great change in America. People, especially homemakers, tired of scrimping and saving throughout the Great Depression and then World War II, were looking for an easier time of it. And nothing exemplified that more than Horn and Hardart, a chain of automated restaurants that would change the way some people would eat forever.



How It All Began
Long before such fast-food giants as McDonald’s and Burger King, there was Horn & Hardart. People looked upon the company’s coin-operated Automats as a sign of progress. Wonders of speed and efficiency, the restaurant chain quickly grew into the world’s largest, serving 800,000 people a day in its cavernous, serverless restaurants serving hot, fresh food through vending machines and cafeterias. Making their debut in Philadelphia in 1902, just up the street from Independence Hall, and reaching Manhattan in 1912, Horn & Hardart Automats became an American icon.

Customers could assemble their own meals in a continuous moving operation. Though the word "automat" comes from the Greek automatos, meaning "self-acting," Horn and Hardart’s Automats were far from automatic. As a customer removed a compartment’s contents, a behind-the-machine human quickly slipped another sandwich, salad, piece of pie or coffee cake into the empty compartment.

Joseph Horn and German-born New Orleans-raised Frank Hardart opened their first restaurant together in Philadelphia, on December 22, 1888. Their tiny lunchroom at 39 South 13th Street had only a counter with 15 stools. By introducing Philadelphia to New Orleans-style coffee, blended with chicory, which Hardart promoted as their "gilt-edge" brew, they made their little luncheonette a local attraction. As people heard about Horn and Hardart’s coffee, the business flourished. Ten years later, they incorporated as the Horn & Hardart Baking Company.

Inspired by Max Sielaff's AUTOMAT Restaurants in Berlin, Horn and Hardart became the first non-Europeans to receive patented vending machines from Max Sielaff's AUTOMAT GmbH Berlin factory, creators of the first chocolate bar vending machine. They opened their first automat in the United States on June 12, 1902, at 818 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. The first New York Automat opened in Times Square July 2, 1912. Later that week, they opened a second one at Broadway and East 14th Street, near Union Square.

In 1924, Horn & Hardart opened retail stores to sell prepackaged automat favorites. Using the advertising slogan, "Less Work for Mother," the company popularized the notion of easily served "take-out" food as an equivalent to "home-cooked" meals.

Those Were the Good Ole Days
Customers assembled their own meals in a continuous, moving operation. Customers could see the food before purchasing it through glass-fronted compartments and the shiny fittings appeared to be more sanitary. Marble counters and floors, stained glass, chrome fixtures, ornately carved ceilings, and Art Deco signage made Horn and Hardart’s Automats seem more like Parisian bistros than sterile fast-food outlets. Customers received their food on real china and ate it with solid flatware.

In huge rectangular halls filled with shiny, lacquered tables, women with rubber tips on their fingers, known as “nickel throwers," sat in glass booths and gave customers the nickels required to operate the food machines in exchange for larger coins and paper money. Customers scooped up their nickels, then slipped them into slots in the Automats and turned the chrome-plated knobs with their porcelain centers. In a few seconds the compartment next to the slot revolved into place to present the desired cold food to the customer through a small glass door that opened and closed. Diners picked up hot foods at buffet-style steam tables.



The company discouraged its patrons from tipping. Nor did any cash register reveal the cost of a meal for all to see. The coin slots kept thrifty customers’ dining expenditures discreetly hidden.

For those diners who were really in a rush, the company provided stand-up counters similar to those that banks provide for writing deposit slips where customers could eat what came to be known as "perpendicular meals."

Lots of Food Items to Choose From
During the Great Depression, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, and creamed spinach were staple offerings at the Automats. Soon, sandwiches, slices of pie, chicken potpie, fish cakes, buns, and tapioca pudding joined the menu which eventually offered 400 choices. Eventually, the Automats served lunch and dinner entrees, such as beef stew and Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes.

These were popular, busy restaurants, where in the late 1950s, for under $1.00, patrons could enjoy a large meal that fit their budget. Each stack of glass-doored dispensers had a metal cylinder that could be rotated by the staff on the other side of the vending wall, hiding the contents while they refilled each dispenser in the stack with a plate of salad, pudding, meat, or vegetables. Each dispenser had a slot for one or more nickels, and a knob to rotate the nickels out of view into the internal cash box and to allow the glass door to be raised up and locked in a horizontal position for easy removal of the plate or bowl of food. More expensive items required tokens valued up to 75˘ which customers could obtain from the cashier. Some of the rectangular dispensers offered hot food, others cold choices.

The Best Coffee in Town
Horn & Hardart’s coffee became known as the best in town. Horn & Hardart introduced the first fresh-drip brewed coffee to Philadelphia and New York. In their heyday in the 1950s, Automats sold more than 90 million cups of fresh-brewed coffee each year. From 1912 to 1950, a cup cost a nickel.

The coffee flowed from silver dolphin spouts that Joseph Horn found in Italy. And that French-drip coffee, always piping hot and potent, was Horn & Hardart’s most popular item. It was freshly brewed every 20 minutes, and until 1950 it cost only a nickel a cup.

After brewing each batch of their coffee, Horn & Hardart employees filled out a time card. After 20 minutes, they discarded whatever coffee remained and prepared more. Irving Berlin, the composer of "God Bless America," wrote a famous song about this delicious brew, "Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee," which became Horn & Hardart’s theme song.

Quality Always Came First
While Horn & Hardart Automats delivered food quickly, workers behind the scenes prepared meals from scratch using fresh, high-quality ingredients. They refilled food compartments as they emptied, thus insuring freshness, and they didn’t allow food to linger overnight. Workers poured freshly squeezed orange juice that sat for two hours down the drain. After closing time each day, Horn & Hardart trucks carried surplus food to "day-old" shops. New York and Philadelphia each had three, located in low-income neighborhoods, which sold these items at reduced prices.

Horn and Hardart enforced quality control. They gave each manager a leather-bound rule book which listed the proper handling of all menu items. It also described precisely where to position the buffet-style food on the plates and stated the number of times employees were to wipe tabletops each day.

Founders Horn and Hardart and other executives lunched together daily at the Sample Table to test for quality and uniformity. They ate regular menu items and offered suggestions for new ones. And they judged whether new ingredients that outside suppliers offered were superior to those they were already using.

Between courses, samplers sipped black coffee, which came from a different Horn & Hardart Automat each day. In this way, Horn & Hardart performed spot checks on coffee, their most popular item. The precise amount gushed from the mouth of a chrome dolphin’s head, copied from a Pompeian fountain, at an exactly calibrated temperature.

A Victim of Changing Tastes
Unfortunately, Horn and Hardart Automats fell victim to consumers’ changing tastes. Many no longer ate a full meal at lunch. If they did, they had more money to eat at sit-down restaurants. Americans moved into the suburbs and didn’t come downtown as often, so night business at Automats fell off. With lower labor and food costs, modern fast-food restaurants, such as McDonald’s and Burger King, offered too much competition.

 

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How to Recognize and Refinish Antiques for Pleasure and Profit

Book: How to Recognizing and Refinishing Antiques for Pleasure and Profit
Have you ever bought an antique or collectible that was less than perfect and needed some TLC? Bob's new book offers tips and step-by- step instructions for simple maintenance and restoration of common antiques.

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