We’re pre-empting Pi Day with a fresh-baked, black and white photo: Automat, 977 Eighth Avenue, Manhattan. This sweet slice of 1930s food service innovation was photographed by renowned artist and NYC chronicler Berenice Abbott. The photo’s starring subject? The mighty automat—a giant, fancy vending machine and gleaming testament to instant gratification, seen here doling out America’s go-to baked good.
Abbott captured this image in 1936 in one of several NYC locations of the automat restaurant chain Horn & Hardart. Despite their humble prices and waiterless service, the restaurants themselves were rather resplendent, with design details that referenced Parisian bistros. In Automat, 977 Eighth Avenue, Manhattan you can catch the sheen of marble countertops, chrome fixtures, and delicately carved accents. Signs call you to “PIES” in all-caps, Art Deco-esque lettering. Sleek steel and glass cubbies house every edible item in a clean, illuminated grid. Peer a little closer and you’ll see the pies are plated on real china, to be eaten with proper flatware. Coffee may have cost just a nickel a cup, but it flowed from silver dolphin spouts imported from Italy. Beyond that, the cuisine was also reputedly above par. Horn & Hardart’s menu hinged on homestyle comfort food crafted from high-quality ingredients: mac and cheese, baked beans, fresh-squeezed OJ, coffee brewed every 20 minutes (their most popular item), and of course, all kinds of pies. Baked fresh every day, their savory or sweet pies spanned the classics, from pumpkin to pot pie.
Automat, 977 Eighth Avenue, Manhattan is all about the automated food-serving apparatus itself. The photo's angle emphasizes the splendor of the neatly organized array. The man with his back turned to the camera offered Abbott the perfect opportunity to show a patron interacting with the vending machine without the visual distraction of a face. This is a contraption worth marveling at, the image seems to suggest, and at the time this was shot, automats were indeed in their heyday. In the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, automats were a staple of the New York City dining scene.
The first automat was built in Germany in 1896, but the technology quickly caught on in the States. When Joseph V. Horn and Frank Joseph Hardart opened Horn & Hardart in Philadelphia in 1902, it was wildly popular from the jump, enticing diners with its novelty, efficiency, and satisfying fare. Customers simply set eyes on their item of choice, dropped coins in the associated slot, and pressed a button to release the window guarding their grub. Unsurprisingly, the automat found an enthusiastic audience in always-on-the-go New Yorkers. The first NYC Horn & Hardart location opened in 1912, and over 100 would spring up by mid-century. There was more than just expediency at heart here. The automat was a tip-free, affordable antidote to an overwhelmingly elitist restaurant world, a democratic dining institution, a hub for hard-working cityfolk—frugal, moneyed, and any means in between. Automats were iconic symbols of the city’s forward strides.
Of course, they couldn’t last forever. New high rises had built-in cafeterias that took business from lunch-oriented automats, taxes increased, tastes changed, inflation pushed prices higher and quality declined. By the ‘60s, the vending machines had fallen out of favor. The last NYC automat closed in 1991. This photograph, then, is precisely the sort Abbott sought to capture in her Changing New York series— immortalizing the built landscape of an ever-evolving, rapidly modernizing metropolis, preserving places before they were lost to time. Automat, 977 Eighth Avenue, Manhattan is a fragment of the zeitgeist, in amber. And it looks fabulous in a custom frame. Here's to going out on a pie note.
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