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Walter Scott was the 17 year old young entrepreneur from Providence, Rhode Island who is credited with the idea of what we now call the great American “diner.” In 1858, this young man had an idea to supplement his income by selling sandwiches and coffee from a basket to night workers and late night members of men’s clubs. Business boomed. By 1872, Walter was able to quit his printing job and continue selling his food at night from a modified horse-drawn wagon parked in front of the Providence Journal newspaper office. Soon copycat wagons sprang up in Springfield and Worcester, Massachusetts.

The successes of these wagons prompted the formation of companies to manufacture lunch wagons for sale. Patents were sought and issued to those who felt it was more profitable to build than operate the lunch cars.  Improvements allowed customers to stand under overhangs to stay dry, ornate murals, lettering, frosted glass and shiny fixtures. These new wagons were very popular, allowing passers-by and workers to purchase inexpensive meals during the day and at night when most restaurants closed by 8:00 p.m.

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Lunch wagon vendors became abundant causing cities and towns to enact ordinances restricting their hours of operation. Out of necessity, some owners positioned their wagons in semi-permanent locations to try and circumvent the law. During this same time period, horse-drawn streetcars were being replaced by electric cars.Many of the old cars were purchased and converted into eateries. Owners more concerned with making a living than with maintaining their surroundings began to earn the reputations of “greasy spoon” and became gathering places for objectionable patrons.

In 1920 when women received the vote, diner owners began to try and spruce up their image to try and attract women clientele. Flowers were added, cars were painted, restrooms were added as well as tables and longer length counters. Many different manufacturers had sprung up.  Styling was borrowed from the railroad’s Pullman dining cars, creating the term “diner.” Manufacturers began to change the image of the dining cars and night lunches.  Many dining cars added the prefix “Miss” to their names to try and soften their images. 

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Most diners were able to survive the depression as food was inexpensive, although several diner builders were forced out of business from lack of sales during this time period.  After World War II, the demand for diners rose dramatically.  Americans wanted to spend money and make up for years they did without.  New materials such as Formica, neon, terrazzo and naugahyde began to appear in the diners. Booths were added, corners were softened and homemade diners sprung up everywhere.

In the 1940s and 1950s, stainless steel and large windows were incorporated into the design of diners to attract the attention of passers-by.  Important new developments had come along – air-conditioning, ventilation and lighting. Space was the new frontier and it was reflected in the design of diners in the mid to late 1950s. Nearly 5,000 diners were operating in the United States during this time.

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It was during the 1960s, with the introduction of fast food, that the formula for success of the American diner took such a hit.  It seemed that commuters and urban dwellers preferred prompt, clean, predictable menus geared to a population in a hurry and on the move. Diners suddenly became “obsolete relics” to many, resulting in a change of the diner look to brick arches, flagstone, and dark-stained wood and mansard roofs. They are known as colonial catastrophes and Mediterranean monstrosities. This new wave of diners abandoned the familiar imagery of their past as they attempted to look like family restaurants.

In the late 1970s, a revival began with a new interest in diners. Three of the old remaining builders began to manufacture new diners in the old styles. New companies joined this growing market to build retro looking diners. These diners provoke an image of a kinder, gentler America and a renewed interest in our values of yesteryear in a time of such uncertainty as well as homemade quality food. Several national corporations and franchises have adapted the look and feel of a diner. Today, Webster’s defines diners as “a restaurant usually resembling a dining car in shape.”

 

 
 Katz N' Jammers
in Lancaster, CA - 1 location


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