Automat by Berenice Abbott, 1936
In the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s Automats were a New York City dining staple for a hard-working lunch crowd, a modernist icon for a boundless machine-age future. At their height there were over three dozen in the city, serving 800,000 people a day. And nearly everyone who actually experienced Automats in their heyday says the same thing: They never forgot the thrill of being a kid at the Automat.
Created by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart in Philadelphia in 1902, coin-operated Automats were lovingly-designed Art Deco temples to modern efficiency. Sleek steel and glass vending machine grids displayed sandwiches and main dishes as well as desserts and sides, each in their own little boxes, square and even, clean and well-lit. You put a coin in the slot, opened the door and removed your food—which was reportedly quite good, as the founders took terrific pride in their craft.