Note: In preparing for an interview for a documentary on Automats I looked at new sources I wasn’t aware of when I originally wrote this post in 2010, among them a wonderful German trade publication which pictures European Automats produced by the Sielaff company of Berlin. The booklet, from the Hagley Museum and Library’s digital archives, also contains rare exterior and interior shots of NYC’s first Automat, opened in 1902 by James Harcombe. I’ve made modifications to the post and have included some new illustrations.
When automats opened in New York and Philadelphia in 1902 many people were convinced they were an American invention. But they were not. A reporter for the New York Tribune captured a conversation between an American businessman and a foreign guest at James Harcombe’s NYC Automat in 1903, shortly after its opening. After examining the place, the American exclaimed, “What a tribute to American inventive skill!” The man at the next table replied, speaking with an accent, “This is a German idea. There are dozens of these restaurants on the Continent and this one was moved bodily from Berlin …” As the editors of the American Architect and Building News had observed in 1892, when it came to “penny-in-the-slot” machines the U.S. was “far behind the rest of the civilized world.” Even though Americans detested tipping, admired gadgetry, and loved fast service, for some reason the US lagged in the area of automated restaurants.
Slot machines actually go back to antiquity. The first may have been a holy water dispenser in Egypt over 2,000 years ago. But it was Germany that developed the first automatic restaurant, applying electricity to the idea of self-service. Germany was also responsible for the term “automat” which in German usage applies to any type of coin-operated dispensing apparatus. The world’s first automatic refreshment dispenser appeared on the grounds of the zoo in Berlin in June of 1895 and was considered a “howling success.” On its first Sunday in operation it sold 5,400 sandwiches, 9,000 glasses of wine and cordials, and 22,000 cups of coffee. The first “automatisches restaurant,” providing hot meals as well as sandwiches and drinks was also designed by Max Sielaff of Berlin. It was presented to the public at a Berlin industrial exposition in 1896.
The fame of automatic restaurants spread rapidly in 1897 when one was installed and won a gold medal at the Brussels world’s fair. That same year an announcement was made that a similar restaurant would open soon in Philadelphia and in St. Louis – as far as I can determine neither of these became a reality at that time. In 1900 Paris had ‘buffets automatique’ — which resembled automats — all along the boulevards. Automats appeared in London a bit later. Around this time a visitor to St. Petersburg, Russia, found an automatic restaurant by the name of Quisisana, which evidently was the name of a Sielaff competitor in the European automatic restaurant industry. (pictured: top, Karlsruhe, 1903; middle, Dortmund, 1902; bottom, Wurzburg).
© Jan Whitaker, 2010, revised 2013