As an almost-Philadelphian, I am an almost-expert on the Automat. Every person who grew up in the Philadelphia area around WWII has been to an Automat. It was free entertainment for children, and adults loved to take us there. It consisted of dozens of little cubbyholes with glass doors so you could see the food item inside. If you liked what you saw—a sandwich, a salad, or a slice of pie—you put in the required number of nickels, pulled the knob, and the door opened. An unseen army of workers from behind kept the cubbyholes filled, and I have seen customers stooping to talk through an open door as if it were a mail slot with special requests like, “Can I have that sandwich without mayonnaise?” Of course, that circumvented the whole Automat concept, but it worked. You carried your choice to any table—there was no hostess to seat you, everyone was equal. There was no tipping, not even anyone to tip.
As I recollect, you were expected to share your table if there was room for someone else, but Automat etiquette required strangers at the same table to ignore each other and pretend not to overhear the other conversations. Occasionally, you would see strangers get up from a table and immediately begin talking like old friends, but not a word while seated. Individual stand-up tables, unique to my young eyes, were available for those really in a hurry.
The prices were in multiples of 5 cents because the glass doors were all operated with nickels. A slice of pie was something like 3 nickels. This was not especially cheap for those days. Convenience, not cheap food, was their attraction.
In the center of the seating area was a change booth where a cashier converted other currency into nickels. She wore gloves to keep her hands clean. (Handling thousands of nickels each day will leave a black stain.) She was always a woman, too busy to be friendly. No one in an Automat called you “Hon.” The atmosphere was like a robotic scene from the silent movie, “Metropolis,” at least to me. Others enjoyed meeting friends there at any time day or night where they could linger over a cup of coffee as long as they wanted. They were open 24 hours.
The restaurant chain was started in Philadelphia in 1902 by Joseph Horn and German-born Frank Hardart, based on an earlier German patented concept. Their first Automat at 818 Chestnut Street was very popular and they quickly grew into the world’s largest restaurant chain serving 800,000 meals per day. You can see a piece of that original Philadelphia Automat preserved at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, complete with the familiar coin slots and chrome-and-porcelain knobs on the glass doors. The previous European versions were utilitarian and much smaller.
Horn & Hardart was noted for their coffee with good reason. They introduced the first fresh, drip-brewed coffee, a big improvement over the bitter boiled coffee usually served at restaurants. With just a nickel, a measured amount of brewed coffee flowed from the mouth of a chrome dolphin. Sugar cubes and tiny glass bottles of cream were nearby. At their peak, they served 90 million cups a year and kept the price at one nickel right up to 1950. The coffee was freshly brewed every 20 minutes and any left past that point was discarded. Customers even bought bags of the ground beans to brew their coffee at home in their percolator.
If your childhood was deprived and you only knew the Horn & Hardart on Baltimore Pike just south of Lansdowne Avenue, that was not an Automat. I remember when it opened and was very disappointed. But the timing was near their end. Horn & Hardart was essentially a lunch place and a late-night coffee shop. Customers were moving out of center city, and the Automat did not fit the suburban life style. The Lansdowne Horn & Hardart was a failed attempt to become a regular restaurant chain. In the 1970s, Horn & Hardart went out of business and their remaining restaurants became Burger Kings, I kid you not.
Trivia: What was the slogan of Horn & Hardart’s? A: “Less work for Mother.” Horn & Hardart sponsored a popular local Sunday morning kiddie variety show called “The Children’s Hour,” based on a previous radio show. Many contestants went on to become well-known adult performers. I found it cloyingly cutesy and rarely watched it.