Place  /  Debunk

The Myth of the American Diner

Diners have always been considered a model of culinary democratization in the American public consciousness, but can they really be for everyone?

The history of the diner begins in the 1870s with the lunch wagon, a slightly beefed-up version of a pushcart vendor. They first appeared in Rhode Island, near hubs of late-night activity, to feed revelers, laborers, and newspaper workers. And because they were not formal restaurants, men of lesser means were as welcome as anyone else. For most working men, eating at a restaurant would be out of the question, as they could potentially afford only “a tankard of drink or small cut of buttered bread,” writes Michael Karl Witzel in The American Diner. “Besides, with your clothes soiled from a day’s hard labor... sitting down to dine at a fine city hotel would be a little embarrassing.” Also, restaurants may not have been open during the late night or early morning hours when you really needed a bite. The “night lunch” wagon, in contrast, provided coffee, sandwiches, and pie at nearly all hours.

Like clockwork, writers began to romanticize the working-class lunch wagon. In 1896, the Boston Morning Journal described a local lunch wagon as a place where “all classes of men rub elbows within. Fashionable gentlemen in dress suits order sardine sandwiches and chocolate with as much eagerness as the homeless itinerant calls for a dog with a slap of mustard.” Richard Gutman, author of a series of books on American diners, recounts a newspaper story from 1932 in which a reporter observed the crowd at a diner, everyone from milkmen to actors to debutantes to teamsters. There were caveats, of course — Gutman notes there were few women eating in diners in their early days, and certainly these spaces would have been at least de facto segregated — but “there’s a tremendous history of everyone going there,” he says.

By the 1930s, the diner as we know it had physically taken shape. The mobile lunch wagons had ditched their wheels, setting up their counters and barstools permanently where most of their working-class clientele would find them. But after World War II, diners began to more closely resemble the family-friendly establishments we think of today — and they hit their stride. In the late 1950s, there were over 5,000 diners in America, and manufacturing of the modular, stainless steel structures boomed. “As those patrons became more affluent after World War II and those upwardly mobile working-class families began to enjoy some discretionary income, eating out became a leisure pursuit, and the people who owned diners and people who manufactured diners realized that there was a potential market just awaiting them among their own customer base,” says Andrew Hurley, a professor specializing urban history at University of Missouri-St. Louis.