Ever wondered where the diner came from? Here’s a brief history of diners in the United States.
Standing at the very heart of the American dream is the diner. It is nearly impossible to conjure up an image of America’s golden age without thinking of one. Immortalized in film, TV, photography and literature, the diner was a quintessential American invention that captured the spirit of an age and defined the very heart of an America beating with a seemingly boundless energy and limitless future.
The creation of the first ever diner was accredited to a man named Walter Scott in 1872. In the spirit of America’s entrepreneurship, he had seen a way to make money by selling food to the employees of the Providence Journal in Rhode Island. His first diner was nothing like the image we have of a diner today, in fact it wasn’t even a building, but rather a horse drawn wagon with windows, resembling more of a modern day ice crème truck.
By 1887, so many people had taken up Scott’s idea that the first commercial production of what became known as “White House Cafes” began. In fact, the word ‘diner’ comes from the two words, dining car. These diners became very popular as people were able to buy cheap meals late at night when most restaurants were closed. The addition by the late 1800’s, of stools where people could sit and eat, helped to boost their popularity yet more.
The 1920’s, saw a makeover for the diner from rather squalid, greasy spoon places into much more reputable eating establishments. New wagons flooded the streets, filled with modern inventions such as electric motors and even internal toilets. Owners even began to personalize their diners by painting the exteriors in different styles, from Art Deco, Mediterranean and even Tudor styles. By the 1930’s, America had seen the birth of the modern diner we would recognize today. Modern materials and facilities cemented the reputation of these diners as clean, affordable places not just for workers, but for the whole spectrum of American society.
Diners growing popularity
Always popular with the working man, the diner saw an explosion during the years after the Second World War, where boosted my America’s new found wealth and a high employment rate, they flourished. The 1940’s and 1950’s were really the golden age of the American Diner. For the generations growing up at this time the diner seemed to be intrinsically linked to their experience, as a place where people would meet to hangout with friends, go on a date or just to meet new people. This fact, meant that in moves such as Diner, Grease, or American Graffiti, it becomes almost like a central character where 24 hours a day something is sure to be happening.
It was with mass ownership of the auto-mobile and the subsequent flock of people to the suburbs that the diner once again changed. Moving to the suburbs their was more space for larger diners, fully equipped with air conditioners, large windows, terrazzo floors and even plants. This move to the suburb also saw an explosion of permanent, brick buildings that called themselves diners. So much increased space allowed for many more customers and the addition of things such as jukeboxes. The designs were always fairly similar, a long service counter at with customers could sit and eat while around the rest of the diner there would be rows of table booths at which groups of customers could sit.
Diners have always remained true to their original concept of selling low cost, typically American food such as hamburgers, sandwiches, breakfast foods and of course coffee. Though some diners, such as those in the north-east, focus on seafood like clams and shrimp, they still remain true to their humble beginnings by serving American food 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Competition from new fast food restaurants during the 1970’s saw the decline of the original dining wagons, which have largely disappeared today. However the iconic status of the diner has kept the modern brick diners in popular demand, not just in America but throughout parts of the world such as Asia and Europe where people go to seek a way to peer back into America’s most golden age.