I am happy that I had a chance to see this fine exhibit at the New York Public Library while I was in the city for a conference. It showcases menus, pamphlets, manuscripts, and other materials from the library’s collections, and also features actual hardware from the Automat, particularly a reconstructed wall of Automat cubicles. Alas, they have no food in them.
The exhibit is divided into four themes: eating places that furnished quick lunches, eating places where “power lunches” took place, home lunches, and charitable lunches, a theme which includes soup kitchens and early school lunch programs.
Of course I was primarily interested in the first two themes since both are about restaurants. Other than the Horn & Hardart Automat, places such as Childs’ restaurants, Sardi’s, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, and Schrafft’s were profiled with displays of menus, drawings, photographs, and other memorabilia.
I was particularly fascinated by two large map sheets which presented mid-town Manhattan in great detail, showing the names of each of the businesses lining several streets. Published in the 1950s by Nirenstein’s Realty Map Company of Springfield MA, similar maps were made of many large cities in the U.S. I must see more of these!
It was delightful to see a photograph of Miss Frank E. Buttolph about the time she launched her menu collecting project whose results formed the basis for the library’s vast menu collection.
There are a few areas where I would have slanted things a bit differently or included additional material. As is often the case when the historical focus is on one city (or country), its uniqueness, greatness, or innovativeness tends to be overstated. For instance, New York was not alone in having early fast food lunch rooms – all big cities did. Nor was it a pioneer in the development of the cafeteria. Chicago and Los Angeles both played a greater role in the early days of the cafeteria.
I think too that I would have paid attention to the saloon lunch, since it was a very popular method of acquiring a quick lunch. Temperance advocates portrayed saloons as loathsome places but, as some anthropologically-minded reformers pointed out, saloons also functioned as welcoming community oases and cheap eating places for many low-income workers, men in particular.
But these are minor criticisms of a show that is well-researched and presented and will certainly delight hundreds of thousands of visitors as well as proving a valuable resource for teachers. The free show runs until mid-February 2013 at the main library. A promo for the exhibit is on youtube.