On Exhibition Now: The History of NYC’s Lunch Hour

by Emma Orlow

My inner Harriet the Spy came in handy when I was on the bus a couple of days ago, eavesdropping on a conversation between two elderly women (yeah, I know, I’m really that cool!) talking about a new exhibit that opened at the New York Public Library called “Lunch Hour NYC.” After a couple of minutes of listening to the women reminisce about how cheap food used to be “back in the golden days” when they’d hangout at diners with the waitresses on roller skates, I, myself, was nostalgic for a time I will never experience. All the same I wished I could crank a time machine and go back with them. I peeked at the pamphlet in one of the women’s hands and jotted down the information for the exhibit.


I never thought too profoundly on the concept of lunch (unless it is to wax poetic about how delicious my apple peanut butter sandwich is, or, when I was younger and ate boxed lunches, to cherish notes and drawings my dad used to hide in my packed meal). However, after venturing to the Lunch Hour NYC exhibit, I can honestly say that I can look at my favorite meal of the day with a new lens.

The exhibit, which opened on June 22nd 2012, looks back at more than a century of New York lunches and traces the socioeconomic patterns that caused the idea of lunch as we know it to take shape. The interactive exhibit takes you in chronological order, beginning with the genesis of pushcarts.  At the turn of the century, with the rise of industrialization, the lunch hour began to become more regulated, causing  the need for more places to accommodate workers for a sit-down lunch.

Although the entire exhibit was magical, I was most fixated on the automat. I’ve had this postcard of an automat on 8th avenue photographed in 1938 in my possession for as long as I can remember. The automat was brought to New York in 1912 and lived on for many years after, up until 1991, when the last surviving automat closed its doors. Still, the magic has always thrived in my imagination. Although sometimes the dishes in automats were as simple as macaroni and cheese, my mom has always described the automat to me as food jewels on display behind glass windows- available for just a few cents. In the Lunch Hour NYC exhibit, they even built a replica of an automat and filled the windows with exact recipes of dishes that would have filled a real 1900s automat. As I pulled out one of the cards for pumpkin pie, an older gentlemen said to me: “people used to think that there were robots at work behind the windows. Few knew that there was a whole OZ-like kitchen behind the wall. Once in awhile you’d get a slice of pie and be met with a face of someone from the kitchen and it would be this big surprise.”  Interestingly, I later learned in the exhibit that the mystery of the kitchen was often left this way to keep up the face of the company (automats often hired women and minorities to work behind the wall and wanted to keep them hidden).

There is just so much  to say about the exhibit, which is why you must see it for yourself. And while you will absolutely learn a lot about the history of New York through food, (for example, did you know that “white bread” initially became popular because it was a way to visually detect mold?) more importantly, you will get to be alongside many people who actually lived through the history.   

The exhibit concludes with this photo series, taken all on April 22nd 2012, within the same time frame, across the five boroughs, of people having lunch at everywhere from Golden Krust to Bryant Park in New York. It’s such an interesting way to bring the exhibit full circle.  

Free advice: hangout with your grandparents more. They, like the women I encountered on the bus, have great advice and their sagacity will rub off on you. If you don’t have grandparents, I promise you, just hangout at Lunch Hour NYC; there are plenty of cool elderly people waiting to talk to you. The exhibit closes February 17, 2013. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. 

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