Greasy, Hungry, Powerful: What the American Diner Says About America

There's a reason the image of the American diner hasn't changed since the triumphant, deluded 1950s.

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Aug 9 2015, 5:39am

Photo via Flickr user Fintrvlr

The American diner, in all of its plush-seated and chrome-topped glory, has been a staple of our culture for nearly an entire century now.

"The diner as we know it is well over a hundred years old," Richard J. Gutman, director and curator of the Culinary Arts Museum, told VICE. "The design has often changed to mimic, reflect, and project the kind of design elements and popular tastes that are either part of the vocabulary of the time, or that we might be looking forward to in the future." Gutman has been documenting the evolution of the American diner for decades. His book, American Diner, published in 1979, is a landmark text on the diner as a cultural artifact.

Gutman himself has been going to diners since their heyday in the 1950s, though nobody at the time seemed to consider them exceptional. To Gutman and his generation, diners were simply built into the fabric of American life, though their design would often serve as a gateway into some version of tomorrow.

"This was a time in which diners were really reflecting the burgeoning machine age and the streamlined era, because it was the natural design of the time and it was forward-looking," Gutman said. "At the same time, the food was food you were comfortable with, so that ying and yang was a stronghold of the business."

The question becomes not why diners are still so popular, but why this particular version. Of its many iterations, it's the aesthetic of the 1950s diner that has persisted.

The evolution of the traditional diner started as early as the late-1800s, with the development of "night owls," a lunch wagon made accessible for those working later hours. Their popularity prompted savvy business owners to buy outdated carriages and revamp them to serve an evolving working class, providing shelter from unpredictable weatherand seating for the weary.

By the 1930s, diners made a move toward more streamlined design influences, utilizing bullet-shaped exteriors and chrome interiors in an effort to stress cleanliness. This became particularly crucial for a generation of patrons raised to view eating out as an exercise of the upper class. The open kitchen, which remains a staple of diner design, served as an immediate display of cleanliness and a method of appeasing attendees that despite its old nickname, "greasy spoon," the diner itself wasn't cheap.

Photo via Flickr user Doran

Shortly after the Depression and the start of World War II, women entered the workforce in mass while men were shipped off to war. Whereas diners initially catered mostly to men, this sudden change in the American working class caused an overhaul in their image. Diners had begun to feminize their image in the 1920s, softening the color schemes and bringing in flower boxes and wallpaper to add warmth to what were initially prefabricated train carts, but by the early-40s, they began to cater to women too. Many even re-branded their business names to include Miss in an effort to advertise their menus as "home-cooked meals."

Everything changed once America emerged as the victor of World War II, establishing itself as a world super power and the leader of the so-called free world. The United States, which less than ten years prior had been in the midst of an economic collapse that left millions jobless, was suddenly thrust into a period of renewed and unimagined prosperity.

"In general, among political and business leaders, social elites, and the press, it was overwhelming optimism, confidence, and faith in American progress," Jenifer Delton, a professor of history at Skidmore College and author of Rethinking the 1950s, told VICE. "Some have called it hubristic, but this feeling of optimism had been earned. The US had fought and decisively won the most extensive war in world history against a verifiably evil foe, and not only did it do so without slipping back into depression as feared, but it went on to achieve incredible economic prosperity."

This is the fundamental joy brought on by the diner as a space: it's reminiscent of home, but not.

This era of aesthetic stimulation seems to be where the enduring present image of the diner has come to settle. Films like American Graffiti and Barry Sonnenfeld's appropriately titled Diner and television shows like Happy Days and Saved By The Bell have all featured diners, and even with their varying eras, the look and feel of their settings have remained curiously similar. Much of this can be attributed to the inherent cyclicality of style and fashion—the revival of neon in the late 80s and early 90s go a long way in making the pastel color schemes of the mid-century feel radically relevant. But there seems to be something else at play here, where diners come to represent something sacred about American culture that these texts both want to imply.

"In an era of relative prosperity, there is often a feeling of greater freedom, freedom to hang out, freedom to meet up with friends, especially among the young," Delton told VICE, citing both the innocence and the sudden freedom of the diner as a space to experiment. Teens would congregate in groups, using the parking lot to show off new cars—sometimes even pair up in the backseat of them. "Old sexual mores were actually loosening up in the 1950s, and the bohemian views of modernists from the 1920s and 30s had gone mainstream and people were experimenting in terms of sex; I think perhaps one could argue that the culture of diners and drive-ins helped facilitate that."

Photo via Flickr user Phillip Pessar

What makes American diners even more strangely uncanny is their presence abroad, internationally beloved in Russian, France, Germany, and more. Some of these countries have a historically complex relationship with the US,and yet these spaces serve as a strange time capsule of an era that was never even theirs.

"I think the feeling around the world is that diners capture something very appealing about America during that period," Alan Hess, an American architect and advocate for twentieth-century architectural preservation,said in an interview with VICE. "The way America was prosperous during WWII gave post-war European cities something to look forward to."

Hess frames the American diner as a post-war mirage. As the US took its first steps into the space age, using fighter jets, space ships, and rocket technology as the foundation of modernism, countries sorting through the post-war rubble looked to the purity and forward-lean of American business as an inherently hopeful interpretation of life after wartime. To Gutman, diners serve as a "piece of neutral American iconography that transcends [politics]."

Hungry humans lining up to eat, inexplicably, at "Breakfast in America," an American diner-themed restaurant in the heart of Paris, where there is better food. Photo via Flickr user mirka23

"What the 50s did was that it was an incredible era of productivity and it produced a lot of stuff," said Charles Phoenix, a prolific American pop culture humorist. "We're talking mass production like crazy. It really was a cultural explosion of making things and buying things. We became this mass consumerism culture. This juggernaut of civilization—a shopping spree that's still going on, really."

To Phoenix, the diner and its mid-century aesthetic is more than just a theme. The prevalence of the aesthetic, and its sheer ubiquity is a fundamental element of American history.

"It's one of the pillars of authenticity," says Phoenix. "Vintage diners are the pillars of Americana. This is who we are, This makes us unique. Americana is different than Europe. They don't have it—they never had it. We want to keep this stuff, to keep our identity."

The diner has always been something of a refuge, a space that seemingly belongs to no one person, which means it inherently belongs to everyone. Old couples, rowdy teenagers, families of all classes. In the days before eating out became a staple of modern life, the diner was a classless oddity; an institution built to serve in a time when restaurants catered to the bourgeois, and home cooking was a financial requirement.

Growing up on the edges of San Francisco, I would frequent diners as an exercise of the curfew-free life liberal parenting allows. The diner was where my friends and I would gather, a strange extension of the home kitchen. This is the fundamental joy brought on by the diner as a space: it's reminiscent of home, but not. That eerie feeling is a simple but fundamental part of America's image of itself: safe, inclusive, and forward-leaning, but historically precious, recognizably democratic, and fundamentally unaltered.

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