Automats were America’s first major fast-food chain – essentially giant vending machines. The idea came from Joe Horn and Frank Hardart, who were running a lunchroom business in Philadelphia. They opened their first automat there in 1902, and their first New York automat opened ten years later, in Times Square on July 2, 1912. A nickel bought a cup of coffee.

Up until 1950 (when the price of coffee increased to a dime) nickels made the system work. Two nickels bought baked beans or mac and cheese, three an egg salad sandwich.

Automats like this one on 8th Ave prospered in the Depression.

In 1937 (the year after this picture was taken), 500,000 people a day were served, seven days a week.

They became part of New York culture, an American icon celebrated on stage and screen.

“Ah yes,” WC Fields drawled, “I eat at the automat. But I pick my teeth in front of the Hotel Astor.” And in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn Monroe sang: “A kiss may be grand but it won’t pay the rental on your humble flat, or help you at the automat.”

In the 1970s, Horn & Hardart replaced its dying restaurants with Burger King franchises instead, and the last automat closed its glass doors in New York City in 1991.

This story originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of W42ST Magazine.