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The History of Diners

The concept of the diner began when Water Scott, a Rhode Island entrepreneur, repurposed a horse-pulled wagon into a car that served sandwiches, coffee, pies, and eggs to people late at night. He quit his job as a printer to sell food from the wagon. Soon other companies followed to produce lunch wagons or early diners.

Later diners had smaller wheels, larger counters, tile and bathrooms and often were permanent establishments, catering to the lunch and night crowd. In 1913 Jerry Mahoney established the first stationary diner. He owned companies In New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York that shipped diners all over the country — in the 1950s, he owned 6,000 diners nationwide.

After World War II, diners implemented Formica countertops, porcelain tiles, leather booths, wood paneling and terrazzo floors. The look of the diner changed as it spread to the suburbs, implementing stainless steel exteriors, large windows and wall decor. In the 1970s a revival took place and many diners were built with a retro look. Diners spread to Europe which gave economic support to diner companies in the U.S. Today many companies build new diners and remodel old ones. There are many diners listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The diner’s role as a cultural icon is indesputable — it is a setting in acclaimed films like Pulp Fiction and When Harry Met Sally, some of the greatest novels of the 20th century and even paintings by Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell. In the TV series Twin Peaks, the detective often stopped at the diner. Artist Edward Hopper has a painting of people alone in a 24 hour diner at night sitting at the counter called Room in Brooklyn. Tom Waits first live album was called Nighthawks at the Diner and he had a song about diner food and nightlife on the album.