Sunday, April 29, 2007

Three nickels in a slot…and Dinner is Served



The first time I went to the famous Horn & Hardart Automat it was 1941 and I was eight years old. I was fascinated with the bank of tiny glass windows that protected an array of delicious food dishes. It seemed like magic to me. As soon as you made a selection and inserted your nickels the glass door would pop open and you could retrieve your food. Then, almost as quickly, the food would reappear again…ready for the next hungry customer. (I didn’t know that there was a kitchen staff behind the windows refilling them as needed.)

For a few nickels you could actually get the equivalent of a small dinner. Specialties of the house would be Macaroni and Cheese, Boston Baked Beans or Chicken Pot Pie. Rice pudding was a favorite, as were all types of pies and cakes and my Dad told me it was the best place in town to get a fresh cup of coffee. If I recall correctly I opted for a sandwich and a fancy desert on that first visit.

When I moved to NY City in 1957 and got a job at WABC Radio I couldn’t wait to see if the Automat was still in business. To my great delight, when I got to Third Ave. and 42nd St., I saw that it was ! I had forgotten that there was also a cafeteria line, as well as the machines that dispensed the food and I had a great time getting re-acclimated. I could have sworn that the cashier was the same lady that I had seen 16 years before. She sat primly behind a change booth in the center of the restaurant and dispensed nickels at a rapid rate.

As you can see from the picture of the front entrance to Horn & Hardart’s the ambience was Art Deco. It was a fun place and a nice change from the stuffy, “old lady” dining rooms such as “Schraffts”. Self-service was a boon and you didn’t have to contend with tips or a staff of waiters or waitresses hovering at your table.

Although the prices had increased it was still a great bargain in 1957 and most entrees were under a dollar. Nickels were the only coins accepted and the tinkling sound of them being dropped into the slots made a pleasant background. The clientele was eclectic and the “haves” and the “have-nots” all assembled to partake of the excellent food...prepared fresh every day.

As I understand it, the Horn & Hardart Automat in NY City was the longest hold-out and stayed in business until 1991. It is now a “Gap”. It’s nostalgic to realize that we will probably never again see a time when a handful of nickels and the twist of a wrist is all that was needed to buy a good square meal.

11 Comments:

Blogger kenju said...

Ginnie, mr. kenju and I were just talking about Horn and Hardart last week! He remembers it all through his childhood. I was only there once, on a college trip to NYC to see museums. I remember being fascinated by the little windows, and the variety of pie available! He will love seeing the photo and reading about it.!

8:30 PM  
Blogger Laurie said...

A GAP, how sad. But I love the story and your great black and white photos really bring it to life. You really should write a book about your life, Ginnie.

8:55 PM  
Blogger Cazzie!!! said...

Oh Ginnie, I love to read your posts every single one of them!! The net just amazes me more and more as we can share so much with each other.
I met up with my Grandad last week, he is 82 yrs old, and he spoke of our ancestry, of growing up in St Kilda and South Melbourne, of the market there that is still there today and how he would go down there at end of the trading day and get as much veggies and fruit as he could for the pennies he was given...your post reminds me of him and his great stories, now, just to find some images to go with his stories for my Friday History Lessons and I will be right :)

You say a good square meal, amen to that...take away is not a square meal is it? That is why I opt to cook every night possible to teach my kids to have veggies and salad and meat chook or fish with it.

8:59 PM  
Blogger Pam said...

Whoa! Now there's a memory brought back and shared. I went there too, when I was a young girl.

6:19 AM  
Anonymous Terri said...

What a great post. I loved reading about this.
And I was amazed to read that the automat was still around until '91. I'm now sorry I never visited it on my numerous trips to Manhattan.

8:38 AM  
Blogger KGMom said...

Ginnie--thanks for sharing this remembrance. My aunt, who lived in central PA most of her life, left home to live in NYC in the mid 1950s--maybe even 1957 also. She talked about how thrilled she was to eat at the Horn & Hardart. She got a job at a bookstore, then started attending night classes at Columbia. She graduated with a degree in German and was recruited by IBM in the 1960s.
While I heard her stories of H & H, I didn't have a mental picture. You helped provide that.

5:12 PM  
Anonymous gawilli said...

This was a nice lesson for me as I did not know there was such a thing. I wonder how much it changed between 1957 and 1991 since the concept of fast food surely did change. Only three nickels. How amazing.

7:26 PM  
Anonymous Claude said...

I have never been there but remember reading about it when I was young.

11:05 PM  
Blogger Ginger said...

I remember seeing this in a movie. Was it with Doris Day where she was a secretary? What a great memory you have. Thanks for sharing.

7:56 AM  
Blogger Ginnie said...

Thanks for all the wonderful comments. I thought you might enjoy this comment that a personal friend of mine sent me by email. He is about my age and worked in NY City around the time that I did...also in the broadcasting business, but at NBC.
His comment: "Ginnie, I was in an NBC bowling league in the early 1950s on Friday night- and the first stop on the way was that very automat."

1:21 PM  
Anonymous naomi dagen bloom said...

have you heard stories of people during the depression who'd get a glass of water at H&H, add sugar, sit for hours? my own family, slightly more affluent, would periodically take me. my fondest memory from the late 1930s: hot cocoa pouring from lion's head-shaped dispenser.

6:41 AM  

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