Diners: An American Icon

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From Horse-Drawn Wagon to the Great American Diner

Rosie's Diner Nostalgic Metal Sign

A “diner” is typically defined as a prefabricated building or modular structure, designed as a location from which to prepare and serve food. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a diner as “a restaurant usually resembling a dining car in shape”. The name derived from railroad dining cars, since many decommissioned passenger cars and trolleys were modified to serve as diner-style restaurants. It was a cheaper alternative to building a restaurant from scratch.

The definition of a diner has evolved over the years to include small restaurants with a counter that serve “American” style food at an affordable price. The atmosphere is generally casual and diners usually stay open late at night.

The American diner has roots that go back farther than you may imagine—back to the 19th century when, in Providence, Rhode Island, 17-year-old Walter Scott sold sandwiches, boiled eggs, pies and coffee in the late evenings to his fellow pressmen at the Providence Journal. He began in 1858 by serving food to the workers from baskets of food he prepared at home to complement his printing income. By 1872 he was able to purchase a horse-drawn covered wagon he outfitted to serve hot food from, while pulled up outside the newspaper office.

Scott’s innovative idea spread and more individuals began to set up their hot food businesses from covered wagons. The first “wagon” that could accommodate customers standing inside, out of the weather, was opened in Worcester, Massachusetts by Sam Jones in 1887. In 1888 Thomas Buckley, also of Worcester, built himself a lunch wagon from which to serve his locally famous oyster stew. The wagon was called “The Owl” and had four stools to accommodate customers at a lunch counter.

In 1891 Charles Palmer received the first design patent for a lunch wagon. The use of these night lunch wagons or “Night Owls” began to spread throughout New England. They were actually much more than “wagons”. Palmer’s designs set the standard for all other lunch wagons of the time. His had a counter that separated the diners from the kitchen and orders could be placed from outside by walking up or pulling a carriage up to an order window.

Charles H. Palmer Lunch Wagon Patent

US Patent No. 458,738 was for a Night Lunch Wagon, filed by Charles H. Palmer in 1891.

Buckley began making lunch wagons commercially, and created wagons that were incredibly elegant as well as being in great demand. The Buckley Lunch Wagon and Catering Company was able to manufacture eight wagons in a month. He gave them names like the “White House Café” and “The Palace Café”. They were beautifully appointed cars; some had etched and stained glass windows, murals and elegant woodworking. At one point Buckley’s wagons were being used in 275 cities and towns throughout the US. His efforts reaped amazing success up until his premature death at age 35 in 1903.

Lunch wagons proved to be very popular for people that wanted to walk in for an inexpensive meal during the day or anyone wanting a hot meal after local restaurants had closed. Soon, lunch wagons became so plentiful on city streets that city ordinances had to be passed to limit their hours of operation.

Wagons began to fall out of favor with the arrival of steam engines and electrified trolley cars. During the 1920s, many of the lunch wagons were sold to individuals looking to set up a diner in a permanent location. The used wagons were sold pretty cheaply to people looking to make a profit selling food and not necessarily interested in maintaining the structure. Rundown diners resulted in the rise of what has become known as the “greasy spoon”.

Many dining car owners fought to overcome their poor reputation by fixing up their diner interiors and adding flower boxes and shrubs to the exteriors. They added more tables and booth service and more choices to their menus. They hoped to attract more people beyond the working class, including women customers, who had recently won the right to vote. Better transportation brought more travelers to diners that were looking for a good meal while on the road.

The Summit Diner in Summit, NJ

The Summit Diner in Summit, New Jersey was built in 1938. (photo by Jeff Boyce / source: wikipedia.org)

The fact that diners offered a decent, inexpensive meal is what got most of them through the Great Depression.

The 1930s brought a major change to the design of diners. Art Deco became very popular and, like trains, diners became very streamlined. They also changed to reflect America’s new fondness for stainless steel and rounded corners. Many diners were built with rounded or vaulted ceilings and a streamlined locomotive shape. Metal striping and porthole windows were added. New diners were built to reflect this new fashion, and old ones were updated as much as possible.

The 1940s were not as kind to the diner business. A large part of the working class was enlisted and defending the US in WWII. Food and building materials were being rationed. For the first time, women began working behind diner counters.

Once the war was over, business took off once again. Newly designed, larger diners were being built and older ones were remodeled. With their new respectability, diners developed fancier menus with higher prices. Jukeboxes were added to counters and booths, which served to attract a younger clientele. The Baby Boom era had arrived and this group is largely responsible for the continued success of diners.

Diners of the ’50s were built to attract customers as they drove by, since many people were moving out of the cities and into the suburbs. There were large windows and stainless steel exteriors. As the ’50s progressed, the new diner construction began to be influenced by the Space Age. Porcelain enamel, glass blocks and neon signs were being used. Unfortunately the 1960s brought a movement away from the traditional look of diners and they began to be built with a Colonial or Mediterranean décor, having little resemblance to earlier establishments. They began to lose much of their appeal and popularity with the public.

In the late ’70s there was a resurgence of interest in the original American diner. Three of the original diner builders were still in existence and they resumed construction of diners using the old designs. Witnessing their success, other companies joined them in building retro-inspired eateries. There are restaurant chains today that use the retro diner designs, understanding the public’s interest and fondness for retro buildings. Two of the chains currently using these designs are the Silver Diners and Johnny Rockets.

Modern Diner in Pawtucket, RI

The Modern Diner in Pawtucket, Rhode Island is one of only two remaining Sterling Streamliners, and is the first diner to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Diners are a trend that has also become popular in Europe and will certainly continue to be as more people become interested in retro American architecture, décor and lifestyles. A few original American diners still exist today, like the 1941 Modern Diner in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. It is one of only two remaining Sterling Streamliners and is the first diner to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. (The other existing Streamliner is the Salem Diner in Salem, Massachusetts.)

Diners will remain an American icon since they have their roots here, in New England, and evolved along with the American people, and were with us through all of our country’s ups and downs. Many believe we should never forget where we came from, and diners are part of who we were and who we continue to be.

Do you know of an original diner still in operation in your area? We’d love to hear about it. Chime in and share your diner memories.

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Last updated: Mar 16, 2009
Filed under: American Icons, Diners, Retro Memories Tagged with: Americana, diner