A few weeks ago, I was on one of the Architectural Walking Tours (Littlest Streets of Fitler Square) hosted by the Preservation Alliance. The tour leader showed off this fairly big manse (in a neighborhood that's mostly made up of small, workers' quarters from 100+ years ago) and said that was the home of the founder of the famous Horn & Hardart Company. I had no idea what that was, never heard of it, so I asked. A few people on the tour actually knew about it and chimed in. Turns out, it has quite a fascinating history of invention and entrepreneurship. The concept was developed here in Philly (borrowed from something similar in Germany) and got very popular in NYC. The restaurants lasted until the 1950s and a few revivals since then couldn't cut it.
Here is a really fun segment about the history of these automats... and the social story it tells us now. The fact that Horn & Hardart hired blacks more than other companies at that time... only to put them behind the automats so as to never be seen or heard from, and paid lower wages. The fact that the damn automat could only take nickles and no other change. The most basic fact that the "auto" part of the automat was still really driven by human power in the back end... This stuff is amazing to get to know/learn...
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If the above string doesn't work, you can click on the link below:
Episode 154: Benh Zeitlin, All-American Etiquette, and the Automat | The Dinner Party Download from American Public Media
Click on the segment that talks about the automat (Main Course: Lunching at the Automat)
There is also a good wiki article about Horn & Hardart:
Horn & Hardart - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia