Skip to content

TCM triggers feelings of nostalgia with The Automat

    the automat 1

    TCM celebrates comfort food this month with movies featuring Horn & Hardart Automat. The Automat was like a giant cafeteria-like space where you could eat for cheap. It was a wall of food with sliding compartments where cafeteria workers placed food for you.

    Horn & Hardart, founded in 1888 by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, was noted for operating the first food service automats in Philadelphia and New York City. The restaurant chain was well known in the U.S. for serving food out of a vending machine for a nickel.

    the automat

    With a handful of nickels and a strong appetite, you could build yourself quite the meal at a Horn & Hardart Automat. This spacious and beautifully designed cafeteria space offered comfort food at reasonable prices. Underneath signs that read Hot Dishes, Sandwiches, Salads and Pie, small cubicles lined the walls offering one delectable treat visible behind a small pane of glass. Just add some nickels into the slot, turn the knob and the glass door would click open and you could help yourself. The coffee station featured the iconic dolphin head spout that would pour out just the right amount of coffee—finished off with a spurt of cream—to fill your coffee cup for just a nickel or two. While everything seemed “automatic,” behind the wall of food was a team of servers making sure there was a constant flow of food and drink. The best part about the Automat is how welcoming it was. Anyone from any social or economic class could sit with their fellow man at an elegant white marble table and enjoy a delicious meal together.

    the automat movie

    Even if you have never stepped inside one, seeing images of an Automat will trigger feelings of nostalgia. Chances are it’s because Automats have been featured in movies from the 1920s to the 1960s and beyond. While the final Horn & Hardart Automat closed its doors in 1991, its legacy lives on in the memories of its many patrons and in the movies. This month TCM will be airing five movies featuring the beloved Automat including a new documentary.

    Directed by Lisa Hurwitz, The Automat (2021) explores the 100-year story of the iconic restaurant chain Horn & Hardart, the inspiration for Starbucks, where generations of Americans ate and drank coffee together at communal tables. From the perspective of former customers, we watch a business climb to its peak success and then grapple with fast food in a forever-changed America.

    Movies with Horn & Hardart Automat in the background

    Thirty Day Princess (1934). Written by Preston Sturges and Frank Partos and directed by Marion Gering, this pre-Code comedy was one of many B pictures produced by Paramount during the Great Depression.

    Sadie McKee (1934) stars Joan Crawford as the title character, a working woman jilted by her fiancé Tommy (Gene Raymond). When Sadie suddenly quits working for her employer, successful lawyer Michael Alderson (Franchot Tone), she and her beau Tommy move to New York City for a new start.

    Easy Living (1937) is a hilarious screwball comedy about income inequality and mistaken identity. Produced by Paramount and directed by Mitchell Leisen, Easy Living stars Jean Arthur as Mary Smith, a secretary for a boys’ magazine. 

    That Touch of Mink (1962) is a charming romantic comedy starring Doris Day and Cary Grant. Produced by Universal and directed by Delbert Mann, That Touch of Mink is set in bustling New York City where suave businessman Philip Shayne (Cary Grant) works across the street from a Horn & Hardart Automat.