Lamy's: A Diner from the Golden Age
Back before diners were considered revered icons of mid-20th-century American culture, Henry Ford Museum's acquisition of a dilapidated 1940s diner raised more than a few eyebrows. Was a diner, from such a recent era, significant enough to be in a museum?
Happily, times have changed. Diners have gained newfound respect and appreciation, as innovative and uniquely American eating establishments. A closer look at Lamy's diner reveals much about the role and significance of diners in 20th-century America.
From Lunch Wagon to Dining Car
Diners trace their origins to horse-drawn lunch wagons, those turn-of-the-century "restaurants on wheels" that fed hungry workers on the night shift in cities. To get around local laws limiting their hours, some operators sought permanent locations for their "night cafes."
During the 1920s, full-scale restaurant units were mass produced in factories and shipped to order. These were called "dining cars," or "diners" for short, to link them in the public's mind with elegant railroad dining. Their promise of quick, simple, relatively inexpensive food had great appeal. Expanded menus, booth service and indoor bathrooms helped attract new customers to diners—including women and the growing number of automobile tourists.
Mr. Lamy Buys His Dream Diner
The period before and after World War II has often been called the golden age of diners. At this time, modern diners, called "streamliners," represented the latest in speed, efficiency and convenience.
World War II veterans, lured by dreams of prosperity, jumped at the opportunity to own and operate their own diners. As Clovis Lamy (the original owner of the museum's diner) remarked, "During the war, everyone had his dreams. I said if I got out of there alive, I would have another diner—a brand new one."
Sure enough, when Lamy was discharged from the army, he ordered a 40-seat, 36- by 15-foot model from the Worcester Lunch Car Company. It boasted 16 built-in stools, six hardwood booths, and a stainless steel back bar. He could choose the diner's colors, door locations and outside lettering. Lamy and his wife Gertrude visited the Worcester, Massachusetts plant once a week, eager to check on its construction.
Lamy's Diner opened for business in April 1946, in Marlborough, Massachusetts. According to Lamy, business was brisk:
We jammed them in here at noon—workers from the town's shoe shops—and we had a good dinner trade too… People stopped in after the show… after the bars closed, the roof would come off the place.
During the long hours of operation (the place closed at 2:00 a.m.), the kitchen turned out everything from scrambled eggs to meat loaf. To Clovis Lamy, there was no better place than standing behind the counter talking to people.
But the dream had its downside. The work day was long. Lamy was seldom able to eat with his family. After moving the diner to nearby Framingham, he sold the business in 1950. The new owner then moved it to Hudson, Massachusetts.
Diner Demise and Revival
By the late 1950s, businesses were leaving urban downtowns, where diners had long been a mainstay. Families preferred the standard fare of chain restaurants, or the cheaper and faster service of drive-ins and fast-food establishments. Diners had lost their appeal.
Nearly a quarter of a century passed before Americans' interest in diners was rekindled. The Henry Ford played a part in this revival. As early as 1982, the museum began looking for a diner as "an ideal site for interpreting the 20th-century experience." In 1984, diner historian Richard Gutman spotted the Hudson diner for sale in the Boston Globe. The museum acquired and moved it, then spent three years restoring it to its 1946 appearance.
When Clovis Lamy and his wife viewed the diner at the 1987 opening of "The Automobile in American Life" exhibition, they confirmed that the diner looked as good as new. "Even the sign is the same," he remarked.
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This post is part of our archived Pic of the Month series.
Massachusetts, 1980s, 1940s, 20th century, restaurants, Henry Ford Museum, food, entrepreneurship, Driving America, diners, by Donna R. Braden