A Look Back At America's Horn & Hardart Automat


Born in the mid-50's, I feel so fortunate to have experienced the heyday of what I think was something that was not only incredibly unique, but also a lot of fun; especially seeing it through the wide-eyed wonderment of a child.

I remember my mother taking me to my first Horn & Hardart Automat in Center City, Philadelphia when I was probably 8 or 9 years old. At that time we lived in the suburbs, so my mother and I took the train into the city to meet my grandmother (her mother) to do some shopping, and then have lunch.

I clearly remember being utterly fascinated by how an automat worked, because back then it seemed so high-tech. And although the automat was considered cafeteria food, it was carefully prepared and scrumptiously delicious. The food tasted homemade, I kid you not.

In case you're not familiar with an automat, here is a brief history:

Horn & Hardart began when Joe Horn and Frank Hardart became partners in a small coffee shop in Philadelphia in 1888. Over the next ten years they opened a half-dozen more, adding to the number of items on the menu and increasing the size of each restaurant. Throughout its growth, Horn & Hardart was always focused on quality coffee, and became known as having the best coffee on the East Coast.


In 1902 the company opened its first AUTOMAT coin-operated cafeteria on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. The automat was based on a European “Waiterless Restaurant” but highly modified for the United States.

*a photo comparison of the very first automat location, which is not far from where I live in Center City...


This is what it looks like presently. The upper floors of the building have been converted into apartments. The lobby level contains medical offices.
I'm so glad they preserved the original art deco automat sign...


Horn & Hardart ground coffee tin and vintage cup and saucer...


"Put a Nickel In, Take Your Food Out."

Customers would put nickels into slots, turn a knob and open a little glass door to get their food. Below you will see a coin booth, where customers would give the booth operator their money that would be exchanged for nickels...


After a food item was purchased by a customer, that item would immediately be replaced by an employee who worked in the kitchen behind the wall of glass doors...



A great shot of Audrey Hepburn eating at a New York City automat. She was having lunch during a rehearsal for the Broadway show, Gigi...


Very often in movies back in the 40's, 50's and 60's, you would see the use of an automat, such as in That Touch of Mink, starring Doris Day and Cary Grant...


Doris Day and Audrey Meadows...


Here is a clip from the film (there is no need to watch the whole thing, just watch about a minute and you'll get an idea of how the automat worked)...


In conclusion:

Personally, I would love to see the automat return because I think it would be a big hit. It's quick, enjoyable, and provides quality food. And in today's world of technology, in addition to using coins, I'm sure they would offer an "Automat App" that you could download, enabling you to simply scan your smartphone over your desired food, and Viola!...the glass door would open.

Aaaaah yes, the good ol' days mixed with the modern days.

Couldn't you just picture it?...


Wishing you an automatically fabulous week, y'all!
X

26 comments

  1. What a wonderful post, Ron - and the photos are all great. I've heard of the Horn and Hardart automatic but never had the privilege of experiencing one. You were fortunate to have had the experience. The entire concept was really way ahead of its time and, as you said, I think it would work very well today. An Automat App is a great idea!


    I loved the Doris Day movie clip and watched all of it (now I'm yearning to see the whole movie). I miss those good ol' days when people still had class and good etiquette was in vogue....


    ...and I love that vintage cup and saucer.

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  2. Oh how I adored Doris Day.

    "Put a Nickel In, Take Your Food Out." Yes, we had them here in the UK. Some little folk had problems reaching the slot to put money in, but I do recall a shopkeeper providing a standing stool for them! Oh happy days, Ron.

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  3. Nice photoshop in that last photo, Ron! I had heard of an automat, but truly didn't know how it worked. Thank you for the education. Was any food hot? The whole idea of it is so George Jetson! I would have been completely fascinated by this as a kid. I'm sorry to have missed out.

    When my son and his now wife were in China in October, they sent a video of one of those cafeteria places where the food is on a conveyor belt under a clear dome and you stop it at your table when you see something you like. It was really interesting!

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  4. Oh Ron, I LOVE this post! I've always believed that I am an old soul because I love anything vintage (clothing, music, cars, homes, appliances, etc.). I really enjoyed this post because I've heard of the automat and have seen them in old movies, but didn't know the history. What great photos! And thanks for sharing the Doris Day clip. What a hoot!

    And that final photograph is awesome! How did you do that?

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  5. Ron, what a fabulous flashback post! Yes, I definitely remember the automat because we had them in New York as well. I, like you, was fascinated by them as a young child. I didn't realize that the first one was in Philadelphia!? Don't you miss some of things from the past? I agree, I think if they brought them back, the public would respond favorably, especially in a city. You're right, the food was delicious and tasted homemade. I loved the soups and pies.

    Enjoyed the clip! I remember seeing that movie years ago and loving it. Wasn't Audrey Meadows in the Honeymooner's with Jackie Gleason? I always get Audrey Meadows and Jane Meadows confused. Love the picture of the woman holding the smartphone. LOL!

    Delightful post, Ron! x

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  6. Thanks, Jon! I had such a blast searching for these vintage photographs online. It was so hard for me to choose just these because so many of them were FABULOUS!

    I think the automat was more of an East Coast city thing. They were also very popular in Europe. I'm so glad I got to experience the automat before they went away.

    Isn't the cup and saucer so beautiful? That was back in the days when restaurants actually served coffee in a cup and saucer.

    "I loved the Doris Day movie clip and watched all of it (now I'm yearning to see the whole movie). I miss those good ol' days when people still had class and good etiquette was in vogue...."

    I couldn't agree with you more! I found the movie on Dailymotion for free!

    Thanks so much for stopping by. Have a fantastic week!
    X

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  7. Meeeee to, Valerie! I adored her! And I love watching her films because they always give me such a warm feeling. Whenever I look at her, I smile :)

    "Yes, we had them here in the UK. Some little folk had problems reaching the slot to put money in, but I do recall a shopkeeper providing a standing stool for them! "

    Thank you so much for sharing that because I knew from researching the history of the automat that they were very popular in Europe, which is where they originated. And I love what you shared about the shopkeeper providing a stool for the little folk. That is so sweet!

    Thanks so much for stopping by, dear friend. Have a wonderful week!

    X

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  8. Thank you! It took me a little over an hour to photoshop that last photo because I didn't actually use Photoshop. I used an online photo editing website where I had to manually erase the background of the smartphone photo, and the cut and paste it onto the black and white vintage photograph.

    Yes, absolutely, the hot food was served hot (such as soups, hot turkey sandwiches, meatloaf). As soon as a customer took a an item of food, it was immediately replaced by people in the kitchen who made the food. So it was always fresh and warm.

    "The whole idea of it is so George Jetson!: HA! I agree! And as a kid, I LOVED The Jetsons, so that's why the automat fascinated me.

    "...in China in October, they sent a video of one of those cafeteria places where the food is on a conveyor belt under a clear dome and you stop it at your table when you see something you like. It was really interesting!"

    OMG...how cool was that! I think Asia, overall, has been doing things like this forever because they are advanced in technology.

    Thanks so much for stopping by, my friend. Have a fantabulous week!

    X

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  9. Honestly, until I got to your second paragraph, I thought an "automat" was a place you went to wash your clothes. Never heard of this concept before, but I can see how it definitely would have felt cutting-edge at the time. It's kinda like the replicator on Star Trek, though there are actual humans making your food in this case.

    Maybe this is your next calling, Ron. Launch a brand new automat! Take Philly by storm!! I'd go. (As long as I could get an automat cheesesteak, of course.)

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  10. Ron, I've never heard of an Automat! Maybe they just didn't make it to "rural America," or maybe it was too "fancy" for Central Illinois. I think I'd have liked using one, though, and as you say, it could be brought back with an app. Look how much owners could save by not having to hire a wait-staff, ha!


    A very interesting peek into the past, my friend. Love how you've included so many historical photos, along with new ones, and I think it's wonderful how they saved the sign, too. Enjoy the snow -- you are getting some, aren't you?!? xx

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  11. Lawsy this was fun! I remember the Automat from when I was a little kid in NYC - And for some reason I most remember the lemon meringue pie.

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  12. Wow, Ron, this is such a terrific post!

    Thanks so much for doing all this research and providing us with images and history of this American institution. Sadly, young people today probably have no idea what Horn and Hardart was or its unique contribution to 20th Century America.

    I absolutely adore the photo of Audrey Hepburn! It is suitable for framing!

    And thanks for weaving your own experience with this treasured place--it gives the story a nice, personal touch.

    I'm so glad they're preserving that H&H in Philly. We must hold on to our old buildings!

    And it's funny, but I recently met a man who told me his sister lives in a new, wired building in New Jersey. The ground floor is a grocery store that is completely automated. Only the building's residents can enter whatever they buy is automatically added to their monthly rent statement.

    The more things change...

    Great job, buddy! Have a most excellent week and hold on to your spare change!

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  13. So glad you enjoyed, Candice!

    " I've always believed that I am an old soul because I love anything vintage (clothing, music, cars, homes, appliances, etc.). "

    I feel exactly the same. Even as a young child, I always felt like I was older. In fact, I didn't really like being young, I couldn't wait to get older. I love the 30's and 40's!

    The clip I shared was from one of my favorite Doris Day films. The cast is wonderful! Such an enjoyable film!

    I edited that last photograph by overlaying another photograph of the arm and smartphone over the black and white photograph. I use an online photo editing website.

    Thanks so much for stopping by, my friend. Have a great week!

    X

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  14. Hey there Elaine!

    I got my inspiration for this post from an vintage automat photograph I spotted online while googling for something else. The photo immediately brought back such great memories for me.

    Wasn't the automat FABULOUS? Loved the soups because they all tasted homemade, as well as the pies. I loved the pumpkin pie!

    You know, it wasn't until I did some research for this post did I realize that the automat originated in Philadelphia, and was the first in America.

    Yes, OMG...I so miss some of the things from the past.

    "Wasn't Audrey Meadows in the Honeymooner's with Jackie Gleason? I always get Audrey Meadows and Jane Meadows confused. "

    You are spot on...Audrey Meadows WAS in the Honeymooner's, she played Alice, Ralph's wife. But she and her sister looked so much a like, I too confused them.

    Thanks so much for stopping by, my friend. Hope you're enjoying a FAB week!

    X

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  15. Mark, and can so see WHY you thought an automat was a place you went to wash your clothes because they had had similar names. Laudromat, Automat.

    Yes, it felt very cutting-edge back then because there was nothing else like it.

    " It's kinda like the replicator on Star Trek, though there are actual humans making your food in this case.

    HA! Yes...it does!!!

    You would LOVE the automat because the food was faaaaaaabulous! And even though it was labeled as cafeteria food, it tasted like homemade.

    "Maybe this is your next calling, Ron. Launch a brand new automat! Take Philly by storm!! I'd go. (As long as I could get an automat cheesesteak, of course.)"

    OMG...that cracked me the hell up! But it's also a great idea!! And yes, if I did...I would be sure to offer a automat cheesesteak, just for you!

    Thanks so much for stopping by, my friend. Have an awesome week!

    X to you and Tara

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  16. Hey there Grace! Great to see you!

    Yup..they started in Philly, however, they were also in New York. It was a very "North East thing" because people who were not from here never heard of it.

    Ah yes...the lemon meringue pie! YUM-MY!!!!

    Thanks so much for stopping by. Have a great rest of your week!
    X

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  17. Hey there Debbie!

    Yes, an automat was something that was primarily in the North East because many peiople for other parts of the US have never heard of them. And you're right, they were more a "city thing" than "rural" because of the convenience and speed at which you could go in for lunch on your lunch hour and get food FAST and DELICIOUS.

    "I think I'd have liked using one, though, and as you say, it could be brought back with an app. Look how much owners could save by not having to hire a wait-staff, ha!"

    Yes, exactly! Owners saved money by not hiring a wait-staff. And oh, you would loved it because the food was so good. I tasted like something your mother made when you were a kid. I especially loved the hot sandwiches, pies, and soups.

    Thanks so much for stopping by, my friend. Have a faaaabulous rest of your week!

    X

    P.S. We haven't gotten any snow yet, just rain. However, we might be getting some this weekend because it's supposed get VERY cold. I hope we do because I've been waiting for our first really good snowfall.

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  18. Aw... thanks, Rob! Glad you enjoyed! Being from New York, I know you've experienced an automat because they were very popular both in Philly AND New York.

    " Sadly, young people today probably have no idea what Horn and Hardart was or its unique contribution to 20th Century America."

    You're right, they don't. But I think if they were to make a comeback, I think the young people would love it because they can order their food, not talk to anyone else, and text on their phones. HA!

    That's one of the few things I like about Philly, they work to preserve their old buildings.

    "a new, wired building in New Jersey. The ground floor is a grocery store that is completely automated. Only the building's residents can enter whatever they buy is automatically added to their monthly rent statement."

    OMG....what a great idea!!! VERY much like something out of The Jetsons!!

    Thanks so much for stopping by, buddy. Have a super week. And welcome back!

    X

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  19. Ron, this is so cool! I had no idea what an automat was, nor have I even heard the word. No doubt that these would go over well now because of the way it operates. I'm so impressed that back then, it seemed so cutting edge. Almost spacelike!

    I love the photos your shared, especially that final one of the lady holding the smartphone. LOL! Well done on the edit. And is it just me, or did people dressed better back then?

    Thanks for sharing a blast from the past, dude!

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  20. Hiya Matt!

    "Almost spacelike!" Yup! When I a kid, my favorite cartoon was The Jetsons, so when I first walked into an automat, that's the first thing that I thought of because it seemed high-tech and spacey!

    I had so much fun editing that photo. It took me awhile because I had to manually do a lot of erasing and then pasting.

    OMG, yes...people back then dressed so much better. And it's funny because back then I didn't even realize it. It's only looking back, do I see it. It's like people took more pride and care in how they dressed. Plus, I think the clothes were much more stylish than now.

    Thanks so much for stopping by, my friend. Hope you're enjoying a fabulous week!
    X

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  21. What a GREAT post, Ron! Oh my god, I loved all the vintage photographs you shared about the automat. I wish I could have experienced them because I know it's something I would love! You know, I've seen them featured in various old movies, but I honestly didn't know what they were or what they were called. And you're right, I think they would be very popular today!

    That photo of Audrey Hepburn is gorgeous. What a classy lady she was!

    Thank you for sharing some nostalgia, Ron! I love looking back on times, often wishing I lived then.

    Hope you're enjoying the colder weather. I saw on the news all the snow the Northeast is getting! xo

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  22. Hola Denise!

    I had so much fun researching these vintage photographs for this post. Brought back some great memories. And every time I walked past the one on Chestnut Street here in Philly, I always look up at that art deco sign and smile!

    Don't you LOVE that picture of Audrey Hepburn? Yes, she was gorgeous and OH-SO classy!

    Me too! I often looked back on past times (30's and 40's) and wish I could have experienced them first-hand.

    Yes! I am soooooooooooooo enjoying the colder, winter weather! We haven't gotten much snow though, but we might be getting some this weekend. I would love to have snow for Christmas!

    Thanks so much for stopping by, girl. Hope you're enjoying a FAB week!
    X

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  23. I sure hope you get a White Christmas, Ron! x

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  24. I remember reading a book as a kid ("The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler") where the kids went to an automat and I was enchanted. I've never been to one, though. I enjoyed the clip from the movie!

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  25. cornwallst59December 29, 2019

    I loved the automat. One of my biggest thrills visiting NYC in the late 50s and early 60s was eating at the automat. Thanks for the memories.

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  26. I'm happy to hear that you got to experience the automat. Wasn't it an amazing concept?

    " One of my biggest thrills visiting NYC in the late 50s and early 60s was eating at the automat."

    What a GREAT memory! And what a great time period. I lived in NYC for 5 years, back in the mid-70's. Loved it!

    Thanks so much for stopping by. And Happy New Year!

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