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The automobile changed almost every facet of life by the 1930s -- including how Americans ate. The restaurants which lined American roadsides were important cultural artifacts, their evolving structures tell the part of the story of automobility in this era.
In her history of diners, Karen Offitzer explains that:
As Americans became increaingly mobile and prosperous, working class families began moving from the industrialized centers of cities to less developed suburbs. Walking to work was replaced by public transportation...As travel time increased, and workers could no longer run home for a quick lunch or supper, they began looking for places to grab an inexpensive, quick meal. It soon became apparent to any burgeoning entrepreneur that strategically placed eateries, selling cheap, fast, home-cooked food, could become big business. By the 1930s, customers travelled increasingly by automobiles, and the idea was born to place diners along major roadways (Offitzer, 21).
In their evolving design and their increasing tendency toward corprate ownership and standardized menu and appearance, the eatery of the 1930s shared much with the gas station of the same period.




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For the roadside entrepreneur to be successful, she or he needed to get the attention of passing motorists. In the early part of the 1930s buildings advertised their products literally. The plans for the corn-shaped tamale stand and the pig-shaped barbeque stand are excellent examples of this roadside vernacular.

The speed with which the automobile passed by radically changed the scale necessary for communication. Hand-lettered signs were perfect for pedestrian or horse and carraige traffic -- the automobile required the bill-board, or at least something bill-board sized. In the late 20s and early 30s, a giant pig was cutting-edge architecture! It was an early exploration of the automobile age's new scale (Heiman, 15-20).

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The design of roadside eateries in the later 30s more directly referenced cars. Metal and glass became very popular building choices and the aesthetic of the restaurant mirrored that of the automobile in which its patrons arrived. This streamlined appearance associated qualities attached to the car (speed, efficiency and modern technology) with the restaurant. These two postcards, reprinted in Gas, Food, Lodging implicitly promised diners a speedy meal.
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Another part of the story of the roadside eatery of the thirties is the growing presence of corporations. The particular stories of Kentucky Fried Chicken and of Howard Johnson are interesting models for this corporatization. One story is famously set in Kentucky, the other originates in New England. Each is interesting in its combination of flash and substance, marketing and meat. Note the importance that major thoroughfares plays in each.