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NYC, automats created lunch as we know it

Whether it's a power lunch, a working lunch, a three martini lunch or ladies who lunch, a new exhibit at the New York Public Library looks at the history of the midday meal and what can arguably be called the first fast food lunch at the automat.

By Marcus Harun
NBC News

Between noon and 2 p.m. Americans nationwide have their midday meal: lunch. But years ago it used to be a much bigger meal called dinner.

New York City changed that.

In the 1900s, New York was industrializing very quickly and the work culture was changing. Bosses were stricter with work schedules and workers only had a half-hour to eat at midday. Employees no longer had the time to go home to eat their family meal, so dinner was pushed to the evening. As a result, a high-speed midday meal called “quick lunch” was born.


In a new exhibit, the New York Public Library tracks the evolution of lunch over the past 150 years. “Lunch Hour NYC,” on display now through February 2013, is complete with a restored version of an automat, an automatic restaurant that serves fresh food vending machine-style.  Workers would rush to the automat and grab anything they could afford and ran back to work.

"The food was really good, it was clean, it was fresh," exhibit co-curator Rebecca Federman told NBC News. "It was a different kind of environment than many of us see today and I think that you can't help but have fond memories of dining in such an environment."

The automat, which first opened in New York City in 1912, served everything from pie to baked beans and every item costed five cents.

In the 1900s, employers emphasized the importance of making more money, working faster, and producing efficiently, Federman said. Automats flourished in the fast-paced environment.

"People from other countries coming to visit New York for the first time would always comment about how quickly people ate, specifically lunch," Federman said. "We realized quite quickly that lunch was a topic rich in interesting details that were somewhat specific to New York City."

Scraping together a lunch at home

At the turn of the 20th century immigrants poured into crowded multi-family New York City tenements. Most families did not get to sit down for a daily meal together, Shapiro said. Many women and children would do piece work for garment manufacturers or shell walnuts at home during the day while their father was at work. A mother and four children would typically have 10 cents to eat lunch daily.

"People would work in the flat all day long, there was no room for storage, there would have been no room to keep a lot of food," Lunch Hour NYC co-curator Laura Shapiro said. "So, our whole idea of the specialness of a meal at home just didn't exist; it couldn't."

The exhibit recounts stories of mothers who would send their children to pushcarts on the street to put a meal together for 10 cents. Examples of home lunches include a half loaf of bread, a whole loaf of stale bread or a can of salmon.

Using cutouts of food items, children who visit the lunch exhibit have the chance to assemble their own "10-cent lunch." The activity challenges children to decide how to efficiently spend their money and feed their families.

Evolution of the school lunch

In the 1890s a national school lunch program did not exist in the United States. Kids were supposed to go home to eat lunch – but not all of them were able to. Many poor families couldn’t feed their children breakfast and had no food to eat at lunch.

"They were often underfed, they were often quite thin and would fall asleep in class, and a lot of the reformers at the time noticed this and made sure to make an effort to get the food served within the school," Federman said.

In 1908 a charity introduced the first school lunch program in New York City for three cents. By 1920, the Board of Education took over the program and offered lunch to all of the city’s school children. Twenty years later, the federal government adapted the program and schools across the nation began serving lunch, Federman said. 

Just one more example of how New York changed lunch as we know it.

“The conditions in New York were work, speed, time, and making money,” Shapiro said. “All those things were the kind of driving engines of life in New York and lunch emerged from that energy.”

To learn more about the exhibit, visit the NY Public Library Website.