Here’s Your Sneak Peek at NYPL’s “Lunch Hour NYC” Exhibit

NYPL's Lunch Hour NYC

This Friday is the opening day of the New York Public Library’s exhibit “Lunch Hour NYC” at the Schwarzman Building (42nd+5th). Two years ago, curators Rebecca Federman and Laura Shapiro were told they could do an exhibit on any food-related topic and they kept coming back to the distinctly New York phenomena of the lunch break. I got a sneak peek at what’s in store and if you’re any kind of food or history nerd, you should definitely check it out. If you’re not, you should at least stop by to see the replication of an Automat plus a map with all the things that used to be in Midtown.

Lunch Hour NYC at NYPL
Hot Dog Stand, West St. and North Moore, Manhattan. Berenice Abbott. Gelatin silver print,
1936. NYPL, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.

The first room of the exhibit has two carts that I was extremely excited to see; a recreated oyster cart (yes, you used to be able to buy oysters off of street carts) and a 1960s hot dog cart which was modeled off the original cart design. Did you know that stainless steel hot dog carts weren’t in existence until 1949? There’s even a five-minute filmed interview with their inventor Ed Beller who explains such things as why the umbrellas are orange and blue.

NYPL's Lunch Hour NYC
“Lunch” entry in An American Dictionary of the English Language. Noah Webster.
New Haven, CT: Noah Webster, 1841. NYPL, Rare Book Division.

The next room not only has an original copy of the 1841 edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language, but also a copy of Noah Webster’s annotation of the definition. This room explains how the concept of a fast bought lunch right around noon to 2pm started in New York when people working downtown no longer had enough time to get home for a midday meal. Tourists at the time would comment on how office workers would flood the seats, stuffing themselves with quick hearty meals, and rush back to the office. Sound familiar?

Lunch Hour NYC at NYPL

Follow around a bend and you have the most awesome thing in the world, to me at least, a recreated Automat. Most of the pieces are on loan from a collector, with a bit of recreation help from the library staff–like the lighted signs above the Automat, that’s not a genuine piece. Yes, you can see this at the Smithsonian too, but what you can’t see there are the mechanics Horn & Hardart created for the back of the Automats. You would have never been able to coerce an employee to give you free food, it was physically impossible. They also could never steal since only one person had the key to the coin drop, and there were numerous checks instilled by the company. Another interesting Midtown Lunch tidbit: the Automat’s commissary (where all the food was made) was on 11th Ave and 50th St–slightly out of bounds, but I wonder if there were any free deals to be had! Seeing a (slightly) real Automat was my favorite experience since my parents would never let me visit one as a child.

Lunch Hour NYC at NYPL

To the left of that is a wonderful realty map depicting the businesses in Midtown during the mid-20th century. There are names like Stern’s, Arnold Constable, Woolworth’s, and of course, Horn & Hardart. Pret a Manger is just the new Automat apparently.

Lunch Hour NYC at NYPL

There’s plenty of other cool stuff to check out, like some of the caricatures from Sardi’s, an old menu from the Four Seasons (never a Midtown Lunch contender), a history on how school lunches started at PS 51 in Hells Kitchen, and this crazy awesome wall of lunchboxes. I’ve got my eyes on the “Disco” one.

The exhibit runs from Friday until February 17th–walk in the Fifth Avenue entrance, Gottesman Exhibition Hall is to the back. Get more info here.


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