The Automat—America’s First Snack Vending Machine

Remember the automat? If you worked in Philadelphia or New York City during the first half of the 20th century, chances are you took your lunch in a restaurant that was one big, shiny snack vending machine.

You’d enter the restaurant, make your choice, drop a few nickels in the chrome and glass machine, lift a hinged window and remove your meal, which was probably wrapped in waxed paper. Behind the windows was the kitchen, with a staff ready to replenish each window as the meals disappeared.

The automat started to disappear in the 1950s as the suburbs burgeoned and fast food restaurants came up with drive-thru windows. But once upon a time, this communal snack vending machine was America’s largest restaurant chain, serving 800,000 people a day.

Nowadays you’re more likely to select a candy bar, a bag of chips, or a yogurt from a snack vending machine than a slice of coconut cream pie or dish of baked beans. Fresh coffee’s as popular as ever, though, a true classic. You might not think of Edward Hopper’s 1927 painting or hum Irving Berlin’s automat-inspired tune, “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee” as you make your choice—but then again, you might.