Blogs & Comment

Before McDonald's, there was the automat

Giant, wall-sized vending machines proliferated and then died out decades later, rising and falling at the whim of technological change.

A postcard picture featuring an automat in Philadelphia from 1904.

The History Channel’s website has a cool story about the original fast-food chain, which not only made use of technology but depended on it for its entire business model. The Horn & Hardart automats would have celebrated their 100th anniversary in New York this year, had actual fast-food chains not come along and killed them off.

The automats were essentially giant, wall-sized vending machines that dispensed sandwiches, slices of pie and other goodies from little windows. All you had to do was insert a nickel, turn the knob and take out your purchase while workers quietly refilled the windows in the background.

The concept was born in Germany and brought to New York by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, a pair of restaurant entrepreneurs. The machines became a big hit with busy workers in Manhattan and soon proliferated. Just as with all new technology, that of course made some people cranky. One New York Times writer complained about the rise of the Automats: “The number of cheap quick-fire food hells is appalling. Eating and drinking are rapidly entering the category of the lost fine arts. The young folk nowadays are not epicures… They are in too much of a hurry to dance or to ride, to sit long at table and dine with discrimination.”

The cranks were obviously wrong since the Automats didn’t kill the fine dining star. If anything, society’s increasing techo-ification has made people more appreciative of quality food and the time it takes to make and enjoy.


The Automats started their decline in the 1950s and 1960s, for two interesting reasons—both of which were essentially technological. First, the spread of McDonald’s and the like—all of whom used technology and engineering to produce large volumes of food at low prices—had an impact.

Moreover, inflation caused food prices to go up, which ultimately took the Automats’ goods beyond the range of just coins. The technology that let vending machines accept bills didn’t arrive till the 1970s and by that time, it was too late. Horn and Hardart closed their last New York Automat in 1991.

That’s not to say they’re not still around. The first and only one I’ve ever seen was actually in Amsterdam, about 12 years ago. The machines, operated by Febo, are still quite popular with the after-party crowd. The only downside: it appears you have to like croquettes.