Excerpted and remixed from National Register nomination forms for the Central Diner, Modern Diner, and Poirier’s Diner

#Diner Origins: From Providence to Worcester and beyond

The American diner originated in Downtown Providence with a teenage entrepreneur named Walter Scott (1841-1924). In the mid-1850s, he walked the city’s business and manufacturing districts and sold candy, fruit, and newspapers from a basket. In 1857, Scott decided to focus his business on people working the late shift, as local restaurants typically closed at 8 p.m. His customers included newspaper workers, club-goers, and other late-night denizens of Downtown Providence. When his business outgrew his basket, Scott acquired a pushcart, which allowed him to sell hot coffee as well.1

In 1872, Scott entered into the “night lunch” or “late lunch” business full-time. He acquired a former freight wagon, fitted it with a canvas top, and parked it outside the Providence Journal office, then at 2 Weybosset Street. Like the late-night employees of the Journal and other Providence newspapers, Scott worked regular hours from dusk to 4 a.m.2

#Scott’s Inspired Idea Spreads

A succession of entrepreneurs who followed Scott’s example began a rich history of form-follows-function architecture coupled with entrepreneurial ingenuity. In 1883, Ruel B. Jones quit the Providence Police Department to go into the night lunch business. He hired a local wagon builder, variously identified as Frank Dracont or Diacont, to fabricate the first specifically designed lunch cart, which accommodated customers who ate standing outside the wagon. Starting with his first lunch wagon at Hoyle Square, Jones had at least seven carts operating in Providence by 1887.3

Samuel Messer Jones, a cousin of Ruel, moved to Worcester, Massachusetts in 1884 and went into the lunch cart business there. In 1887, Jones built the first mobile cart incorporating a full kitchen and space for customers to stand or sit and eat inside. With the success of the eat-in wagon, he opened additional wagons throughout Worcester. Four years later, Jones moved to Springfield, Massachusetts and pioneered the night lunch business in that city.4

Worcester builder Charles H. Palmer purchased most of the Jones carts. In 1891, he received the first patent ever for a lunch cart. His design set the standard for the next twenty-five years: “an enclosed body with small front wheels and a narrower tail end between high back wheels; a counter separating the rear kitchen from the dining area, which featured stools or chairs; and windows for passing food to more customers standing at the curb or waiting alongside in carriages.”5

#Mobile Dining Carts become Rooted in Place

In the early 1900s, three companies came into being which transformed the industry; the P. J. Tierney Company of New York, the Worcester Lunch Car Company of Massachusetts, and Jerry O’Mahony Company of New Jersey. These companies led the way for lunch carts becoming “diners” — larger, classier, and able to seat more people. The lunch cart was becoming less mobile and more permanent in one location.6

In 1905, Worcester’s T.H. Buckley Lunch Wagon Manufacturing and Catering Company rolled out a new model affixed to low wheels. It could be transported from the factory to the car’s destination and left in place, rather than hauled to its location every afternoon and hauled out every morning. With a permanent site, diner operators could install electric lights, gas stoves, and running water and serve customers around the clock. The same model also improved the interior plan by locating the kitchen inside a U-shaped serving counter and placing stools and a shallow “eating shelf along the inside perimeter of the cart.7

Around the same time as Buckley, another early manufacturer introduced significant modifications to diner design, Patrick J. Tierney, in New Rochelle, New York. Tierney built much longer wagons and introduced counters set parallel to the wagons long sides. He consciously invoked the appearance of railroad cars and borrowed the railroad term, “diner,” applying it to his products; the name, of course, became all-pervasive for this type of facility.8

#Worcester as the Center of Diner Innovation

Although other manufacturers of dining carts sprang up, Worcester quickly emerged as the industry’s capital. When Philip H. Duprey formed the Worcester Lunch Car and Carriage Manufacturing Company in 1906, he bought out one other rival firm and hired several former employees of Buckley. In his book about the company, Richard J.S. Gutman notes that “Worcester occasionally advertised itself as the successor to the T.H. Buckley Company.”9

Under the direction of master designer Charles P. Gemme (a former Buckley carpenter), Worcester lunch cars developed new configurations, decorations, and finishes. One early plan increased the length of the car, put doors on the center and one end, and placed the kitchen behind along counter with stools. One of Gemme’s innovations was the monitor roof with small operable windows to improve light and ventilation.10

By the 1920s, Worcester dining cars featured long counters of pink Tennessee marble, white-tile floors and walls, plate-metal kitchen equipment, and oak woodwork. Equipment included steam tables, grills, refrigerators, exhaust hoods — all integrated with storage and food preparation areas in the “backbar” behind the counter.

#The Diner gets Streamlined

In the 1930s, the streamline aesthetic, with its appearance of movement and efficiency, influenced American design from household objects to automobiles to fashion to architecture. Diners, which already embodied mobility, were updated with state-of-the-art materials like porcelain enamel, Formica, and stainless steel and with new forms like slanted or round end walls.11

The Sterling Streamliner line of diner cars might have been the height of the streamlined trend, and Pawtucket’s Modern Diner is one of two remaining examples. With their bow ends, roof fins and pin striping, they capitalized on the latest-visual imagery of speed and motion. Their design made these diners highly visible roadside landmarks, attracting business by their sheer novelty. This is the “Building as sign” approach to commercial architecture. In addition, the Sterling Streamliners’ modernism was intended to attract a prosperous clientele who attached positive associations to the whole concept of modernity.12

The John B. Judkins Company, the makers of the Sterling Streamliner, were a Merrimack-based firm who originated as a coach (horse drawn carriages) manufactory in the mid-nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century they turned to the construction of diners. The firm employed a patented method of sectional construction for their diners developed by Bertron G. Harley, as well as his system for suction ventilation. Barley’s improvements were granted patent rights in 1937 and are readily apparent in the Modern Diner. The ventilation system and the sectionalized construction technique made it possible to construct one end of this diner flush against a pre-existing building. The purpose of sectional construction, however, was not solely functional. It was also economical: it enabled the business owner to start small and enlarge at a moment’s notice, section by section in direct proportion to increased business.13

#Roadside Architecture and Family Restaurant

Though originally more-or-less exclusively male haunts, diners began to cater to women after 1924 when Patrick Tierney and others introduced table service in addition to the traditional counters. In the ‘30s booths became common and from then on diners were not only night owl hangouts but family restaurants as well.14

After an hiatus during World War II, a great boom in diner construction occurred in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. Diners had become familiar fixtures in roadside locations. While diners were born in city retail, factory, and theatre districts in the early twentieth century, they began to appear along highways to feed hungry drivers since the 1920s. Beginning in the mid-1960s, diner design shifted from stainless steel and streamline to more rustic materials and historicizing styles. Diner experts Brian Butko and Kevin Patrick call this trend the “Environmental style.” Colonial and Mediterranean motifs, mansard and gable roofs, and materials like brick, stone, and wood paneling adorned new and remodeled diners.15

#Retail Competition

During the late ‘50s and particularly in the 1960s and ‘70s, however, a new variety of limited-menu, retail chain outlet superseded diners in the fast-food business. Of an estimated 5,000 diners which once operated, fewer than half survived by the late ‘70s most in altered condition, many of them closed or converted to new uses. Several firms which once specialized in diner manufacture exist as well, but produce much larger, prefabricated, counterless modular restaurants.16

#A New Appreciation

In the late 1970s, diners close to their original, unaltered form, become a rarity. Those that survive come into a new realm of appreciation. The Modern Diner in Pawtucket was the first diner to be listed on the National Register, then not quite 50 years old. Diners themselves come in and out of fashion based on the whims of their owners. Those that embrace their original diner charm seem to do better than those that they to make them look like something they are not. Many more diners have been demolished or have sat in disrepair for long enough to be prohibitively expensive to bring back into operation. In general, diner cars that have retained their original interiors and exteriors have become a rare breed.

#Still Going Strong

Rhode Island is lucky to have quite a few in operation — The Modern Diner, the Westminster Diner, Jigger’s Diner in East Greenwich, and Patriot’s Diner in Woonsocket to name a few. And let’s not forget Haven Brothers, the only mobile diner still in operation.

#Want more?

  1. “American Diner Then and Now,” Richard J.S. Gutman, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993, p. 12-14; “The Lunch Cart — Aged 60,” Providence Journal (February 21, 1932), p. 14-15. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. “Poirier’s Diner” Providence, R.I., National Register nomination (2003); “Lunch Cart,” p. 15. 

  4. American Diner, p. 17-18. 

  5. “The Diners of Massachusetts,” National Register Multiple Property Listing (1999). 

  6. “Poirier’s Diner,” p. 8-9 

  7. American Diner, p. 22-31. 

  8. “Modern Diner,” National Register nomination form, David Chase for the RI Historical Preservation Commission, 1977, continuation sheet 1 

  9. “The Worcester Lunch Car Company,” Richard J.S. Gutman, Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004, p. 19 

  10. “The Worcester Lunch Car Company,” p. 19 

  11. Ibid, p. 29, 89; American Diner, p. 61; “Porcelain Enamel” in Twentieth-Century Building Materials: History and Conservation, Thomas C. Jester, New York: McGraw Hill, 1995, p. 254-61 

  12. “Modern Diner,” continuation sheet 2 and 3 

  13. “Modern Diner,” continuation sheet 2 

  14. “Modern Diner,” continuation sheet 1 

  15. “Central Diner,” National Register nomination form, Sarah Zurier and Kate Barnett-Smith for the RI Heritage and Historical Preservation Commission, 1977, p. 8-9 

  16. “Modern Diner,” continuation sheet 1