The American diner, with its distinctive long counter and its reliable menu of simple but hearty fare, was a familiar feature of the urban landscape for much of the twentieth century. In addition to providing a setting for informal and inexpensive dining, it eased the entrance of affluent working-class families into mainstream, middle-income consumer culture. Ironically, the very success of diners in the post–World War II years proved to be their downfall. By introducing upwardly mobile, blue-collar families to the concept of informal commercial dining, they contributed to the popularity and proliferation of fast-food chains that offered the same service without carrying the stigma of a working-class heritage.
Diners owed their origins to the horse-drawn lunch wagons that prowled New England's manufacturing districts at night in the late nineteenth century, offering quick and cheap nourishment to industrial workers. After the turn of the century, when these lunch wagons became stationary to accommodate more elaborate cooking facilities, operators continued to place them in industrial areas. Because of their resemblance to Pullman dining cars, they became known as "diners." In fact, some of them originated as railroad cars. Most were mass produced in factories, although some were fashioned from abandoned trolleys during the 1920s and 1930s, and others were built on-site to mimic the prefabricated variety. These diners flourished during Prohibition, when their primary source of competition—the neighborhood saloon—was eliminated. The growth of motor trucking also expanded the market for diners and accounted for their ubiquity along heavily trafficked thoroughfares. There were nearly 7,000 diners in operation on the eve of World War II.
Although primarily utilitarian in function, the workingman's diner was also a place of leisure. Patronized by regular customers, diners were gathering places where men could banter—often in salty language—in a common parlance of sports, politics, and work. The counter-and-stool arrangement also encouraged casual conversation among strangers. Because diners cultivated a constituency composed from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, they were sites of cultural amalgamation, places where immigrants and their children became assimilated into a more unified working-class culture through their consumer habits. Like pool halls, bowling alleys, saloons, and other working-class consumer venues of the early twentieth century, diners catered primarily to men.
After World War II, the social function of diners changed dramatically. Widespread affluence enabled blue-collar families to emulate middle-class consumer practices and consider a meal away from home as a form of recreation. Eager to tap the growing demand for leisurely dining, diner owners gravitated to suburban residential districts. They also tried to create a more refined and comfortable dining experience by installing upholstered booths for family seating, removing cooking facilities to a separate rear kitchen annex, and hiring waitresses to serve customers. If the prewar diner had functioned as an adjunct to the factory, the postwar variant would cultivate its identity as an extension of the happy suburban home. For the first time, women and children composed a significant portion of the diner's clientele.
Heightened attention to ambiance and decor was reflected in a more flamboyant architecture. With the enhanced use of stainless steel finishing, jutting pylons, and angled canopies, the structures themselves exuded modernity and the look and feel of the space age. Proprietors echoed this architectural trend in the names they chose for their businesses: Rocket Diner, Comet Diner, Flying Saucer Diner. By inference, the buildings assured upwardly mobile customers that they were as up-to-date as anyone else. At the very least, futuristic imagery created a vast psychological distance between the suburban diners built in the 1950s and the typical workingman's lunch car of a previous generation. In response to the growing number of patrons who traveled by automobile, proprietors surrounded their buildings with huge parking lots and erected bright neon signs that could be read at high speeds. One feature that remained fairly consistent across this transition was the practice of racial discrimination. In many parts of the country, diner owners believed that the presence of African Americans would diminish the social standing of their businesses and drive away loyal white customers. During the 1960s, civil rights groups responded by staging sit-ins and pressing for new laws to ban discrimination in public accommodations.
Blending a wide variety of class and ethnic traditions, the post–World War II diner established new aesthetic and social norms for commercial dining. In so doing, it prepared the way for the fast-food empires of the 1970s. By the 1960s, a plethora of restaurant chains and independent family-style restaurants descended on the middle-in-come market, each operating under the same basic formula: casual atmosphere, reasonable prices, and wholesome domesticity. Most followed the example of the diner in offering customers a choice of counter seating, booth seating, and table service. Drive-ins complemented their carhop service with indoor seating. Formal full-service restaurants abandoned rigid formalities and turned casual, perhaps even adding a counter for solitary patrons. While the chain restaurants shared many characteristics with the modern suburban diner, they remained products of very different social backgrounds. None carried the diner's burden of trying to shed an urban industrial heritage. As a result, they had an edge over the diner in attracting members of the established middle class as well as upwardly mobile working-class patrons who were intent on leaving behind their humble origins. Although some diners met this challenge successfully by employing grandiose interior decor and covering their fading steel exteriors with brick facades, many more went out of business.
Since the 1980s, diners have enjoyed a resurgence. Festooned in neon and chrome, adorned with images of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, and staffed with gumchewing, bobby-sox wearing waitresses, the diner industry turned to nostalgia as a marketing device. In delivering a sanitized version of the 1950s, these diners embodied the national trend toward themed entertainment in consumer venues. Meanwhile, a new generation of diner aficionados energized efforts to rescue and preserve authentic diners from a bygone era.
Gutman, Richard S. American Diner: Then and Now. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.
Hurley, Andrew. Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks: Chasing the American Dream in Postwar Consumer Culture. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Jakle, John A., and Keith A. Sculle. Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
Liebs, Chester H. Main Street to Miracle Mile: American Roadside Architecture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.