The Evolution of the American Diner

The Masters of the Booming Lunch Car Industry

                        The lunch car business has been started, and men from varying different ethnic backgrounds have been trying their hands at this new business craze. Even still, the real money had yet to be made.

            As Richard J.S Gutman refers to them, “The Big Three”[1] were Patrick J. Tierney, Jerry O’Mahony, and the Worchester Lunch Car Company. These three companies not only made large amounts of money by entering the lunch car business, but they also had lasting effects upon it.

         Each of these companies is individually deserving of a book to explain their history and large impact upon the American diner business and American culture. In order to focus on my larger thesis, I will cover the aspects of these companies which I deem the most pertinent to this paper.

            As mentioned previously Patrick J. Tierney was the son of Irish immigrants. After operating his first lunch wagon for a short time he decided to purchase a second, and a third, and so on. This string of purchases and expansion to owning multiple lunch wagons in differing areas and cities eventually earned him enough money to start his own wagon construction business. The wagons which Tierney operated before constructing his own, were manufactured by T.H. Buckley.[2] Without Buckley’s previous success it would have exponentially harder for Tierney to create his own successful manufacturing business.

            P.J Tierney is a classic example of the American ideal of hard work and eventual success. He worked his way from owning one lunch wagon, to 38 lunch wagons, to his own company which manufactured his own designs. Due to his previous hands on experience and history of working in lunch wagons, he built a new style of wagon which innovated the entire market. A few of his innovations within the lunch wagon business include, bringing the toilet inside (admittedly not his most appealing innovation), tile within the lunch cars, exhaust fans, ventilators, skylights, and electrical lighting.[3] , By the time of his death, Tierney was a millionaire.

            Not only did Patrick J. Tierney innovate the lunch wagon but he also made it easy for others to purchase their own wagon and jump start their business, which reinforced the American dream. Tierney was a people’s man and would do just about anything to help people run their own wagons. Gutman talks about Tierney’s character, “He loved lunch cars and would do practically anything to get someone started running his own. . . P.J. Tierney made it his business to get out among the people ad sell his lunch cars personally.”[4]This ideal was continued by his sons after his death. In Hurley’s book, Diners, Bowling Alleys and Trailer Parks: Chasing the American Dream, he describes an advertisement by the P.J Tierney Sons Inc, “. . . P.J. Tierney Sons, asserted that by purchasing a diner, the man with no business experience and minimal capital could climb the ladder of success and obtain a “comfortable home – a good car – education for the children – the god things of life for his family.””[5]

            The success of T.H Buckley is also responsible for the success of the Worcester Lunch Car Company. The city of Worcester itself was already slathered in lunch wagons from the previous success of lunch wagon pioneer, T.H Buckley. A former insurance and real-estate agent, Philip H. Duprey formed the Worcester Lunch Car and Carriage Manufacturing Company in 1906.[6] Along with former carpenters of the T.H Buckley Company, Duprey began his lunch car company. Interestingly enough as Gutman states, “Incorporating some of Buckley’ former employees, Worcester occasionally advertised itself as the successor to the T.H Buckley Company.”[7]

            The first wagons made by the Worcester Company was the American Eagle Café, which was finished in 1907. This wagon was given the serial number 200, there was never a wagon from the Worcester Company with the serial number 1.  

            Once again building off the Buckley company, the American Eagle Café was elaborately painted on the exterior, and the spokes of the wheels were pinstriped.[8] The early Worcester Company lunch cars commonly used scenes of American patriotism, history, and hunting as embellishment on the outside of the wagon. The connection to the patriotic spirit and culture of America only further intertwined the lunch wagon business into American culture. A short lived but innovative design by Duprey was the addition of a monitor roof which allowed for operable window vents, and extra natural lighting within the wagons.[9] The detail and extravagance of the wagons built by the Worcester Company made it easy to distinguish them from other manufactures. Author Randy Garbin explains this in his book, Diners of New England, “In northern New England, for instance, you could safely bet that any diner with porcelain on the exterior likely came from Worcester Lunch Car.”[10] Worchester Lunch Cars were known for their designs and cleanliness.

            The last of the big three, would be Jerry O’Mahony. O’Mahony started off working at his father’s grill. Soon after around 1910 Jerry and his brother bought their first dining car in New York. O’Mahony’s first diner was in fact a Tierney diner.[11] The success of their first diner, inevitably led to the purchase of more, and eventually a chain of eight O’Mahony Wagons. Eventually these wagons turned into stationary diners. No longer did the term “lunch wagon” accurately describe these stationary 24 hour diners. The O’Mahony model of diners eventually extended to around 26 feet long, the door had moved to the center of the building, and they all retained a symmetrical and rectangular design.[12] By the 1920’s O’Mahony left the idea and style of the lunch wagons behind completely. His new products were close to the ground, eye catching, and there were more windows within the new diners. An interview of Richard J.S Gutman as quoted by Michael C. Gabriele expresses the importance of O’Mahony, “”Jerry O’Mahony was a pivotal figure in the diner manufacturing business,” Gutman . . . said during a July 2012 interview. “O’Mahony diners became the standard by which all others were judged. His company built fabulous diners.”[13] Along with new design innovations and  the removal of the portability and designs of the past, Jerry O’Mahony also spread the use of the term “diner.” Witzel states “Leave it to Jerry O’Mahony to make the moniker a part of restaurant culture: In 1924, he splashed the word all over a company sales catalog and unofficially, the eatery for everyman had its permanent name.[14]
            The 1920’s is commonly called the “Golden Age” for diners (often disputed with the 30's). With O’Mahony, the Tierney Sons, and The Worchester Dining Car Company it is not hard to see why. During this time the Tierney Sons were competing against O’Mahony. Unfortunately, by the late 1920’s the Tierney Sons had “ran their business into the ground.”[15] He expands upon this in his book and explains that after selling large amounts of stock the brothers effectively lost control of their company. The brothers attempted, along with their uncle to organize a new company under the Tierney name. They were brought to court under fraud and were furthermore restrained from using their own name. Eventually the stock-market crash forced them to close their family business for good.[16] This opening was taken up by O’Mahony and he soon emerged as the dominant manufacturer of diners.

[1] Gutman, American Diner; Then and Now, 42.
[2] Ibid., 45.
[3] Witzel, The American Diner, 48.
[4] Gutman, The American Diner; Then and Now, 46.
[5] Hurley, Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks, 38.
[6]Gutman, The Worcester Lunch Car Company, 19.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Gutman, The American Diner; Then and Now, 50.
[9] Witzel, The American Diner¸ 47.
[10] Randy Garbin. Diners of New England (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2005), x.
[11]Gutman, The American Diner; Then and Now, 53.                     
[12] Witzel, The American Diner, 50.
[13] Gabriele, The History of Diners in New Jersey, 19.
[14] Ibid., 54.
[15] Richard J.S. Gutman, “Diner Design: Overlooked Sophistication,”,Perspecta Vol. 15 (1975): 45.
[16] Gutman, The American Diner; Then and Now, 72. 

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