History of Automobile-Oriented Food

Prior to WWII, automobile use was primarily recreational. Early automobile travelers were nearly as restricted as they had been with railroad travel due to the limitations imposed by the locations and hours of hotels and hotel restaurants. Between 1910 and 1920, autocamping became a solution that offered flexibility, convenience, and liberation from undesirable hotels to roadtrippers.

Camping equipment specifically designed for autocampers emerged. Tents and cooking supplies were necessary for self-sufficient travelers. A 1926 catalog for the David T. Abercrombie Co. advertisers an Amazon Automobile Tent with space specifically designed for comfortable dining. The catalog lists all necessary supplies for preparing for an automobile camping trip. It suggests a variety of items for cooking including an aluminum cooking outfit with pots and pan, a coffee pot, and serving and eating utensils. As an alternative to aluminum, plates and cups were also available in enamelware. Portable camps stores that ran on gasoline were a must in case campfires were prohibited. Some travelers even opted to bring along camp table and chairs. Camp meals were made from ingredients such as flour, corn meal, beans, bouillon capsules, sugar, butter, salt pork, bacon, dried codfish, sliced dried beer, dried milk, oatmeal, rice, dried vegetable, and dehydrated fruits. For auto daytrips, travelers brought along prepared food from home, keeping it warm or cold in portable insulated pails.

Services catering specifically to the needs of tourists – tourist camps, food stands, tea rooms, and filling stations – began to appear in the 1920s. Tearooms served upper class recreational motorists. They became a destination for those looking for a rural retreat and civilized way to spend their leisure time. The popularity of tearooms along rural highways resulted in their appearance on main streets and in hotels.

In an effort to lure tourists, towns created free municipal campgrounds, offering amenities such as electric lights, hot showers, and central kitchens. By the late 1920s, motels began to appear, offering amenities to travelers tired of carrying their own camping and cooking equipment.

For those who could afford it, hotel dining was an easy choice for travelers in a new place. In addition to hotel dining rooms, travelers also turned to local restaurants for sustenance while on the road. Many forms that pre-date the automobile, like hotel dining rooms, diners, coffee shops, soda fountains, lunch counters and main street cafes, evolved to serve automobile travelers in search of a meal. They added parking areas, when possible, and added meals that could be prepared quickly. Lunch counters had been offering affordable, quick-service meals to railroad travelers for years and they were accustomed to catering to customers on the move.

As more and more people, including those from the middle and lower middle class, gained access to automobiles, demand for road food grew and new food service forms emerged. Like the diner before it, the roadside stand was unpretentious and welcomed all. It took on a form similar to the booths that sold refreshments at fairs and carnivals; it also sold similar food, like hamburgers, hot dogs, ice cream, and soft drinks. The stands were constructed on well-traveled highways and invited motorists to park with ease and order food from a window without ever having to go indoors. Eventually these stands began offering curb service. Pioneered by soda fountains in the 1910s and 1920s, staff would take orders from customers still in their cars and deliver it on trays. These precursors to drive-ins, like the popular A&W root beer stands, were among the first to encourage customers to enjoy food in the comfort of their own automobile.

Local restaurants and food stands were typically individually owned and had wide ranging décor and menus. As an alternative to selecting a place based solely on its physical appearance, many travelers turned to guidebooks, like Duncan Hines Adventures in Good Eating, for recommendations. Hines compiled his guide using personal experience as a salesman who had eaten at hundreds of restaurants around the country.

As automobile ownership increased, so did demand for roadside services – fuel stations, motels, and, of course, restaurants. Automobile-oriented roadside services changed the American built environment and landscape. They were no longer confined to general-purpose storefronts but emerged in new purpose-built building types. Proprietors creatively used the building to entice passers-by to stop. Beginning in the late 1920s and early 1930s, flamboyant signs, names, and paint colors were combined with eye-catching building forms. Buildings took on the shape of everything imaginable, from animals to people to inanimate objects. Popular forms included windmills, milk cans and ice cream cones.

As an alternative to the easily accessible roadside stands, highway cafes were developed. Often attached to gas stations or motels, they began as independently owned and operated establishments specifically catering to automobile travelers. Truck drivers in particular were attracted to these one-stop accommodations. They placed emphasis on signage that could be read while driving by and often had large windows so that would-be customers could peak inside. Later, corporate hotels, restaurants, and gas stations emulated this form, often pairing up with one another across the country.

Coffee shops and family restaurants followed the highway cafes, offering more menu options, soda fountains, and a more formal dining room. The Howard Johnson Restaurant is the most notable example of this form. The ownership of Howard Johnson Restaurants was split between the corporate entity and a local franchisee. The restaurants, and later motor lodges, had an unmistakable design, with orange roofs, turquoise cupolas, and large signs; and relied on loyal customers who knew what to expect from the chain. The menus, interior design, and other elements were standardized nationwide. The chain later grew by securing food service contracts from state turnpike authorities.

Independently owned coffee shops, particularly in southern California, used bold, modern architecture and sign design to attract customers. The style, called “Googie” after a small coffee-shop chain, featured extensive use of glass, cantilevered ceilings, and space-age light fixtures. These buildings, built to accommodate and attract motorists, reflected the changing technology of the time in their design.

Following the success of the roadside stand and coffee shop, the drive-in emerged. The drive-in expanded the curbside service that roadside stands began to offer. Most had canopies under which cars could park and order from an attendant, or later a stationary order box. Carhops, dispatched from a central kitchen, then delivered the food on trays that attached to the vehicle. Most carhops were women who were hired as much for their looks and how they looked in their uniform as their ability to serve food. In addition to offering nourishment to travelers, many quick-service, roadside restaurants also became alternative places for young people. The carhops contributed to the attraction of drive-ins to teenagers; in addition to drive-ins, soda fountains and diners also served a social function as venues outside the home and workplace for people to interact.

Restaurants offering fast service became quite popular with roadtrippers. To accommodate this need for speed, roadside restaurants often had limited menus. In Menu Making for Professionals, published in 1950, grilled cheese sandwiches, grilled ham sandwiches, minute steak, cubed steak sandwiches, lamb chops, frankfurters, and hamburgers are the recommended fare for diners, roadside restaurants, and drive-ins. Fried food in particular was popular because of the speed in which it could be prepared and served.

Speed in food production met speed on the highways when the interstate highway system and service plazas were introduced in the 1950s. States owned the service plazas and leased out space to service providers. Hot Shoppes, a Washington D.C.-area chain, held the contract on the New York State Thruway. On of the most notable service plaza concession companies was the Fred Harvey Company. Fred Harvey had established itself along the Santa Fe railroad line and was contracted to operate within the “oases” on the Illinois Tollway. Service plazas provided the easiest access possible to drivers in need of food and fuel.

To decrease labor costs, which were high at drive-ins in particular, operations were streamlined to the bare essentials, creating a new form: outdoor walk-up restaurants. While similar to the original roadside stands, new walk-up restaurants mechanized the production of food. Modern cooking techniques and technologies were embraced. Maximum speed and efficiency of production could be achieved with electric frying vats and grills, automated ice cream, shake and drink machines, and cup and drink dispensers. A kitchen assembly line allowed for job specialization and the use of unskilled labor. Kitchen workers often performed the same monotonous task over and over again for the entire shift. Walk-up restaurants typically employed part-time, minimum wage employees. Teenagers often filled these positions on the “back-line. Many of the walk-up buildings were prefabricated, this combined with the automation and standardization of food production made these restaurants ideal for the development of franchises and chains. McDonalds quickly became one of the most successful walk-up restaurants, with its iconic golden arches flanking each location. Ice cream chains, like Dairy Queen, Tastee-Freez, and Carvel, also succeeded with the walk-up restaurant model.

As a reaction of the attention-getting yet garish forms of the roadside restaurant, a more restrained style evolved in the 1960s. Attention was paid to making the restaurants more attractive and comfortable to travelers and walk-up restaurants added dining rooms. McDonalds led the way in toning down its building design, trading in the golden arches for a brown understated building with a shingle roof.

For travelers not interested in sitting at a drive-in or getting out of their cars, drive-through windows provided the ultimate easy access to quick-service food. The drive-through window first appeared in the mid-1930s. Speakerphone ordering systems were added in the 1950s, giving the employees more time to prepare the food. Wendy’s and Jack in the Box were the first walk-up chains with dining rooms to also incorporate drive-through windows. In the 1980s the double drive-through was introduced and several chains employed solely this design, like Central Park, Checker’s, Rally’s, and Skooters. Like the walk-up restaurant before it, drive-throughs reduced a restaurant’s overhead costs.

Drive-throughs also changed the menu items offered at quick-service restaurants. Many customers using the drive-through also consumed their meal while driving, so in the 1990s emphasis was placed on food that a driver could eat while operating their vehicle. Car manufacturers reacted to this trend by including cupholders in their designs. People began literally eating while on the move rather than taking the time to stop and grab a bite.

Brand loyalty and familiarity combined with efficiency and standardization made quick-service chains wildly successful. They continue to serve the same easily prepared foods that were popularized by early roadside restaurants.


From Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age

“…when Americans travel, a near total dependence on restaurants prevails. Indeed, one of the highest pleasures of tourist travel is that of eating out. The restaurant looms as an important way to experience new localities, even, paradoxically, when the tourist relies on chain restaurants that are very much alike from one locale to another.”

Notes from Heather and Sara’s Meeting with Pat Malone about FOTM 12/16/09


  • Fred Harvey Company – worked with the railroad to provide food before food was served on board
  • Dream Trains – book about Native American railroad tourism
  • American tourism starts with the railroad around 1820 due to more comfortable travel
  • Food was available at the rail stops, but the train didn’t stop for long; Then food became available on board (Pullman Cars); Pullman cars were independently operated, Pullman Porters contributed to the rise of the black middle class

Ships/ Boats

  • Packet boats traveled along canals, canal locks became comfort stations and the lock tender was often a tavern keeper
  • Stagecoach moved west as canals expanded in the east
  • Steamboats drove the rise of the luxury hotel because accommodations at sea were such much grander than on land


  • Cars are connected with the stagecoach
  • Salesmen:
    • Many travelers were salesmen through the 1930s and 40s
    • Salesmen stayed at hotels which didn’t appeal to tourists, so they started using camps
  • Picnicking: people became bringing sophisticated cooking equipment with them on the road
  • Early Tourist Form: Tea Garden
  • Roadside Restaurants:
    • Mom & Pop loses out to franchises
    • Shift from variation to standardized food, begins with standardized drinks (drive-in/ A & W root beer)
    • Bob’s Big Boy
    • White Castle, Hot Dogs by the Bag
  • Roadside Architecture representative of food – blend of the symbolic and theoretical
    • Igloo suggests cold food
    • Restaurant in shape of food, hot dog; could represent ethnic association (i.e. tamale)
    • Donuts
    • Tail of the Pup in LA, hot dogs
  • Truck Driver Market
    • Grapes of Wrath film includes truck stop scene
    • Crime movies with roadside restaurants
  • Race & Class – African American Green Books; Diners became “classless”
  • Social Dimension: Going for a drive with the family; driving as an activity, food became an excuse to go for a ride (go for donuts, ice cream, etc.)
  • Dairy-related: milk, ice cream
  • Sources:
    • Open Road by Phil Patton
    • Googie by Alan Hess, about California coffee shops
    • The Strip
    • California Crazy by Jim Heimann
    • Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945 by Warren James Belasco
    • Orange Roof, Golden Arches by Langdon
    • Primary Source: Emily Post’s By Motor to Golden Gate, contains a lot about hotels and food
    • Matt Roth (Pat’s former student), Southern California Auto Association
    • Photorealism – Roy Striker/ Photo Documentation
    • Film: Postman Rings Twice features roadside restaurant
  • Exhibits that do it well:
    • Henry Ford Museum, Automobile in American Life by Matt Roth
    • Petersen Automobile Museum, LA County Museums


  • Primary Sources: Maps/ Guidebooks/ Green Books (African American guide to stops) – Ask Steve Lubar about these