The Evolution of the American Diner

The Transition from Horse-Drawn to Stationary

                           How did the horse drawn wagon find its way to a stationary location?

             Originally the very first lunch wagon by Walter Scott was horse-drawn. Scott’s wagon had to be horse drawn to transport his goods and business throughout the city to find customers. The appeal of a move-able business far outweighed having a stationary business. Having a stationary business meant that customers had to come to you, but by owning a portable business you could relocate yourself in search of customers. The number of customers you could service multiplied by having a portable business.

            To maximize sales Walter Scott purchased not only his modified freight wagon but also a horse named “Patient Dick”[1]. One of Walter Scott’s favorites spots for business was along Westminster Street, but he also commonly planted his business in front of the offices of the Providence Daily Journal.[2]

            The issue with having a popular and successful lunch wagon, was that other promising and driven individuals could just as easily acquire a lunch wagon and create competition. As Gutman says, “In this fledgling business, the possibilities were so vast that many an entrepreneur could rightly earn the title of pioneer.”[3] The opportunity for success was there and many working class people took this chance for success.

            Along with lunch wagons, came the patrons. The patrons of lunch wagons varied from late night industrial workers, reporters working late into the evening, rowdy young people, and even just a regular customer getting his daily cup of coffee. There existed a vast variety of customers and owners alike. By 1912, the popularity of lunch wagons grew so quickly there were almost fifty lunch wagons being carted around the streets in Providence, Rhode Island.[4]

            With their growing popularity, the lunch wagons began to wear. The constant visits from regulars and rowdy customers alike lunch wagons began to fall apart and their paint chip. The operating permits of lunch wagons require that they can only operate at night. Operation during the morning hours was a violation and often caused traffic congestion. With more and more entrepreneurs trying to make a buck in the lunch wagon business, more and more complaints against them rose. A complaint sent the the editor of the New York Times from May 17th, 1904, states the frustrations realized due to the lunch wagon craze. The complaint states, "To the editor of The New York Times: Why is it that the Church Temperance Society is permitted to have several lunch wagons, obstructions, &c., placed on the public streets of New York, while any other citizen cannot obtain that peculiar and singular "illegal right." CITIZEN." This complaint was no doubt accompanied by many others in various other newspapers.  

            In order to quell the rising complaints cities mandated that lunch wagons be closed for business and off of the streets by 10:00 in the morning.[5] Of course, this did not stop the lunch wagons. To get around this new requirement, lunch wagons began to give up on the idea of having a horse-drawn wagon. Instead many began to find a site off of the road, to plant their business and avoid the regulations on night lunch wagons. Gutman states, “Supporting the romantic image of the horse-drawn lunch cart was really a lot of trouble and soon most everybody was happy to abandon it.”[6] By abandoning the horse-drawn aspect of a lunch wagon, wagons could stay open longer, no longer had to take care of a horse, and complaints against them were reduced. It was a win-win solution for the lunch wagon business.
           An article from the New York Times from February 20th, 1927 titled "Lunch Wagon, After an Eclipse, Is Back Again Well Disguised," briefly discusses the early history of lunch wagons and their recent revival. The article states, "He [the lunch wagon] is landlocked now, but the old lunch wagon we had thought gone for ever is back again. There are stools, too, looking vaguely familiar, and in some the brass rail which brings back even more piquant memories." Even in the twenties the lunch wagon created a food culture which many found familiar and welcoming.

[1]Witzel, The American Diner, 16.
[2] Ibid., 16-17.
[3] Gutman, American Diner; Then and Now, 32.
[4] Ibid., 37.
[5] Ibid., 38.
[6] Ibid.

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