For his latest piece at Collectors Weekly, Hunter Oatman-Stanford spoke to filmmaker Lisa Hurwitz about the Horn & Hardart chain of cafeterias and automats. Despite being limited to Philadelphia and New York (a Boston branch was short-lived), Horn & Hardart was the largest food-service business in America from the 1930s through the 1950s. As it turns out, though, its famous automats were not especially automated, relying on hundreds scurrying cooks and kitchen staffers to fill entire walls of glassed-in compartments with plates of scrapple, deviled crab on toast, and nickel slices of apple pie.
Upon entering an automat, customers would head to one of the restaurant's "nickel throwers," who would give customers change to use at the banks of food-dispensing windows. "The most vivid and common memory that people have shared with me is of the amazing nickel throwers," Hurwitz says. "Especially how, without even counting, the thrower could feel the exact change needed with her fingers. You'd give her a dollar, and she'd throw you 20 nickels across this beautiful marble or wooden counter." Horn & Hardart's machines accepted both nickels and quarters, though with such low prices, a few nickels often covered an entire meal: A cup of coffee was five cents; a ham and egg sandwich was ten.