The Evolution of the American Diner

Appealing to the customers

             Eventually the owners and operators of lunch wagons and early diners needed to adapt and change to appeal to the changing customer base. This change happened post World War I, with the return of our uniformed men.

            From 1924 to 1927 the diner industry grew rapidly, largely in part to the big companies selling and manufacturing diners. The Tierney diner, at this time, was the best deal you could find for a diner. The Tierney Sons sold not only the diner, but also everything needed to run one already included. For example, a new diner included the kitchen sink, pots and pans, a stove, etc.[1] Though, as seen in the last chapter, this success was short lived for the Tierney Sons.

            Along with the return of our troops from the World War I, came the flood of automobiles into the American lifestyle. To accommodate this new flood of vehicles came the construction of tens of thousands of miles of highways. Gutman states, “Scores of Diners popped up along the roadside to service the hungry travelers.”[2] This transition to a roadside attraction and eatery still affects American diners today. It is common to find roadside diners to stop and get a bite to eat all over the East coast, and even occasionally here in the West.

             The new challenge for the entrepreneurs of the diner, was how to appeal to women and expand their customer base. The reputation of the lunch wagon and the early diner was poor with women, and therefore also poor with families. These early eateries appealed to working class men, the lower class, and often questionable customers. Hurley explains this, “The combination of heavy food, rough talk, and questionable hygiene also kept women away, regardless of their class background. Although a few daring flappers were known to frequent after-hours lunch wagons during the 1920s, few women in the subsequent decades wished to subject themselves, let along their children, to what they believed was the characteristic diner experience.”[3] Diners retained a reputation for being a hovel full of sketchy, dirty, and crude working-class men. For good reason, too. Diners often had an environment of spittoons, chewing tobacco, cigar smoke, and a plethora of foul language.[4]

          To combat this and attract a larger costumer base diners expanded to add “Booth Service” or “Tables for Ladies” in the late twenties.[5] Women did not want to subject themselves to being squished between questionable characters by sitting at the bar stools which were common within early diners and lunch wagons. The addition of booth seating within the diner allowed for women to sit comfortably, instead of straddling a bar stool. Diners expanded their size in order to incorporate "family seating" and have booth service. 

          Further efforts to combat this included changing up the style and design of the interior of the diners. In the twenties diners began to introduce intricate tile designs, marble tops, porcelain stool bases, frosted or stained glass windows, metal appliances, and wooden accents.[6] These design changes combated the classic reputation of diners being dark, dirty, eateries and instead began a new reputation. Eventually women began to enter the diner, and purchase their food there as the diner evolved into a more respectable establishment.

            By World War II, women were permanently added into the diner business. With the majority of American men fighting the war overseas women were left behind to run things at home. While Rosie the Riveter is the most famous face of this cultural change, waitresses were also a huge change to American culture. Witzel claims, “The waitress quickly became a diner fixture with more visibility than the cook. She was the interface between the customer and owner, goodwill ambassador, and salesperson. She made it happen, and if you had a good, friendly waitress who like to make customers happy, a diner visit was like nothing else.”[7] The effect of a good or bad waitress/waiter continues to affect the diner experience today. The introduction of women into the diner was a pivotal moment in the evolution of the diner culture, and therefore American culture. Waitress’ made the diner more appealing to the nuclear American family.

         Post-World War II, the focus on the American family grew. Baby-boomers were born, and the nuclear American family began to frequent diners. Hurley explains, “As a consequence of dramatic changes in diner geography, design, and operation, millions of American families adopted the routine of dining away from home for the first time in their lives.”[8] These changes were certainly the expansion of the diner to include family friendly booths, as well as the classic bar stools, the removal of the kitchen to a separate area, and the adaptation of more appealing designs. In a feature in the New York Times Magazine from 1983, as cited by Michael C. Gabriele, Joe Swingle states, “Diners really began to change a lot after World War II, when the short-order cook in front of the diner moved into a kitchen behind the doors. . . In many ways, they started to resemble restaurants.”[9] By domesticating and changing the diner to appeal to a wider diversity of cultures and classes, the American diner effectively closed a culture gap.[10] Now, there existed a place that people from all backgrounds could visit, working-class men, young women, mothers, families, and travelers.

         The diner had evolved from a small, crowed wagon into a place that families could go to eat, get some good home-style food, meet new people, and interact with a lovely waitress.
[1] Witzel, The American Diner, 59.
[2] Gutman, “Diner Design: Overlooked Sophistication,” 46.
[3] Hurley, Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks, 38.
[4] Witzel, The American Diner, 61.
[5] Gutman, “Diner Design: Overlooked Sophistication”, 43.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Witzel, The American Diner, 89-90.
[8] Hurley, Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks, 77-78.
[9] Gabriele, The History of Diners in New Jersey, 77.
[10] Hurley, Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks, 78.

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