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The Old Horn & Hardart Automats of Philadelphia

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Some might remember the old Horn & Hardart Automat restaurants, where you'd put your nickels in and get hot, often nutritious meals without interacting with a human being. It was as though the entire restaurant was one big vending machine. Now the Automats are pretty much a thing of the past, but forum member phillyaggie at Philadelphia Speaks did some research on the Philadelphia-based H&H chain as an introduction to people who aren't old enough to recall what they were like. It's fascinating for history buffs, foodies, techies and Philly obsessives too.

phillyaggie writes of some of the facts learned after research:

The fact that the damn automat could only take nickles and no other change. The most basic fact that the "auto" part of the automat was still really driven by human power in the back end... The H&H that probably lingered longest in town was on Broad Street, where (we believe) Capital Grille is now. A comment left by John O. Goff on an H&H article in a 2001 Smithsonian magazine is an amazing slice of life in front of that restaurant during World War II. Here is that comment, which was in all caps, so we lowercased so you wouldn't feel like someone was yelling at you:

Just after the war started in 1941 my father who was in the Marine corps was sent over seas, we were living in an apt house on vine st. To make extra money I built a small shoe shine kit from an old orange crate I took from one of the "American stores" down the street..I set myself up in front of H&H on Broad Street in Philly. I would guess I was 8 or 9 years old..I had black and brown polish only, couldn't afford any more, got an old shirt and ripped it in pieces and used it as a shine rag, I charged 10 per shine, made about $1.00 per day, that was good...When I got cold I recall that in front of H&H was a large wide grate with steam coming up, , I think from the subway, I would stand on the grate to get warm often times if I looked closely down into the bottom of the grate (maybe 15 ft.) and spoted a coin, I had a very long string with a bolt on the end for weight, I took the gum from my mouth and stuck it on the end of the bolt, I then took a match from my pocket, lite it and warmed up the wad of gum until it became sticky, I then dropped it into the grate and lowered it ontop of the coin, it stuck to the coin and I pulled it up, I got very good at this after a while, one time I was so excited because I retrieved a 50 cent piece..Anyway, I would go into H&H and buy a hot cup of cocoa I think for a nickel, it was so good. So many memories, I shined a lot of sailors shoes in the front of Horn and Hardarts. Loved that place. Well eventually my father came home safe (4th. marine division) and he was transferred to Tiburon Calif. Here we remained. I can still close my eyes and smell the smell. · Horn & Hardart Automats--a Philly business success story [Philadelphia Speaks]
· Meet Me at the Automat [Smithsonian]