Headlines of Yore

Long live the automat, the Philly-made marvel that turned dining into an assembly line

The first one opened on Chestnut street, eventually spawning 150 coin-operated diners across the U.S. — and a short-lived children’s show.

Actress Audrey Hepburn at an automat in 1951.

Actress Audrey Hepburn at an automat in 1951.

Lawrence Fried / Iconic Images

It was 1898 when a food service revolution was brewing across the bridge in Camden — but almost no one realized it.

That was the year Horn & Hardart Baking Company was founded, building up from a tiny, countertop lunch joint in Center City that introduced New Orleans-style coffee to the region.

That same restaurant would expand to national fame for popularizing a different concept: The automat. Likely inspired by the advent of the assembly line, automats were cafeterias where diners retrieved food from a series of vending machines.

The first one opened on 8th and Chestnut streets in 1902. By 1941 there were over a 150 Horn and Hardart locations, all — you guessed it — automated. The brand also had a “terrible” children’s show, per Fred Rodgers, who once worked on it.

Eventually the wonder of a coin-operated family dinner faded, mostly because urban sprawl and drive-thrus became a thing. The last of the automats closed in 1991.

For more on the rise and fall of this industrial Philly wonder, follow along with the thread below.

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