History of the American Diner

Diners are a quintessential piece of Americana. Stepping foot in a diner is like stepping into a time machine. Formica countertops, porcelain tiles, leather seats, and of course, the ever-present smell of coffee are just a few of the distinct features of the American diner.

While many diners are time capsules preserving the brighter, more notable aspects of the 1950s, they aren’t a creation from this decade. The first diner emerged nearly 70 years earlier, in the 1870s when a young man named Walter Scott began selling sandwiches and coffee to late-night workers from a horse-drawn wagon.

Scott’s inexpensive food was a hit, and people loved having cheap food available after other restaurants closed. Other entrepreneurs began opening lunch wagons of their own, and it wasn’t long before cities started passing ordinances restricting the hours these early diners could operate.

To get around these new rules, business owners switched to semi-permanent locations. The first stationary diner was established in 1913 by Jerry Mahoney.

With the outbreak of WWI, diners began catering to women, advertising home-cooked meals and decorating the interiors with a more feminine style to appeal to homemakers. Familiar diner design emerged in the 1930s, such as a bullet-shaped exterior and chrome finishes on the interior to reflect a more modern era.

Despite the devastation brought by the Great Depression, many diners were able to keep their doors open thanks to the inexpensive prices that attracted visitors. Popularity for diners continued to grow, especially after WWII when servicemen and women returned home.

Diners underwent another facelift after the war, introducing the familiar aspects that people know today. These changes included the Formica countertops, wood paneling, and large windows. Then, in the 1970s, diners started adopted the familiar retro styles that many still maintain.

One of the most interesting aspects regarding diner design is noticing correlations between American fixations in culture and the way it influenced diner decor. For instance, the 1950s brought more futuristic styles as the Space Age consumed American consciousness.

Then, turmoil in the 1970s led many Americans to look backward at the 1950s and reminisce over simpler times. People were no longer preoccupied with space travel and the future, and the Vietnam War was taking a toll on the country’s morale. They wanted familiarity and comfort. Thus, the signature retro diner was born.

Americans aren’t the only ones fascinated by diners. This variety of restaurant has found a home in countries all over the world.

It isn’t the low prices and coffee that keep customers returning to diners, though that probably has something to do with it.

There’s something about these restaurants that appeal to something within people. Perhaps customers today also wish for simpler times and see diners as a way to escape from the outside world. Maybe the time capsule effect is what visitors seek when they visit.