The lunch wagon (often called the “night lunch wagon” or “night owl” or “owl” because of the night hours of the business) is first cited in a Worcester (MA) newspaper in 1884. Thomas H. Buckley, of Worcester, would build many lunch wagons (he called them White House cafes) in the 1890s and Buckley was dubbed the “lunch wagon king.”
The lunch wagons sold so many frankfurters that they were called “dog wagons” in the 1890s, giving rise to the name “hot dog.
New York City soon followed Worcester and other New England cities by having lunch wagons in the 1890s, located in places as Herald Square, Madison Square and Union Square.
History of the American Diner by Michael Karl Witzel
The Lunch Wagon Asserts its Domain
With all that it had going for it, it didn’t take long for other entrepreneurs to take notice of Scott’s operation. A Providence policeman by the name of Ruel Jones was the first to copy the setup, with one major difference: he hired a local wagon maker to build a custom unit equipped with a serving shelf! Lunch wagons were improving.
Ruel’s cousin, Samuel Messer Jones, was the next to gain prominence in the trade. He started out small and saved up the $800 he needed to design and build a lunch wagon that allowed the customers to stand inside to eat! His “distinctive night lunch wagon” was built with fine woods and adorned with ornate etched glass windows. With Sam Jones’ entry into the business, the level of lunch wagon beauty raised up a notch.
Around the same time, a hopeful street salesman by the name of Charles Palmer got the idea to work the shift after Jones closed his own operation down. Palmer thought that the night was a great time to sell food and reasoned that there “were a lot of people going to the theater, to square dances and sewing bees, drinking in the saloons, and so on … who had to go home sometime.” While on their way to their humble abodes, he planned to feed them and rake in the after-hour profits.
Indeed, the late-night clientele was plentiful and by 1891, Palmer made history when he took out America’s first patent for a lunch wagon! Although lunch wagons were a regular sight on the city streets, not one operator had the vision to register their design! He went on to do quite well in the streetside dining trade and contributed many innovations to art of wagon design, gaining notoriety by building “lunch wagons of every description, made to order.”
Enter the “Original Lunch Wagon King”
However, Palmer didn’t etch his name into the history books as the sandwich man who dominated the early American diner trade. Nor did Scott, or even Jones. The title of “Original Lunch Wagon King” was reserved for Thomas H. Buckley, a former janitor and cook who worked his way up from relative obscurity to gain widespread prominence in the lunch wagon business. His claim to fame and way to fortune were the famous eateries known as “The White House Cafes,” a line of gleaming wheeled wagons that lent a respectable image to the trade and pulled the industry further away from its somewhat working-class, beanery image. The homemade wagon was definitely seeing the last of its days.
In all respects, Buckley’s Cafes set the new standard for beauty: the windows were frosted, made of blue and red flash glass, or etched with the portraits of past presidents Washington, Lincoln, or Grant! The exterior walls were painted a bright, titanium white and then decorated with ornate paintings depicting famous events in history. Inside, fine finished woodwork and brass fittings raised the bar of comfort. Buckley took the basic concept, added a touch of luxury, and kicked the trade into a new realm.
(Oxford English Dictionary)
1894 Life 4 Oct. 215/1 ‘That, my dear,’ responded Adalbert, ‘is a lunch wagon.’
1959 N. MAILER Advts. for Myself (1961) 69 Inside, out of the rain, the lunch wagon was hot and sticky.
22 October 1884, Worcester (MA) Daily Spy, pg. 4:
A new novelty upon the streets of the city is a lunch wagon, which goes about the streets until midnight with hot coffee and sandwiches.
1 November 1886, Worcester (MA) Daily Spy, “Lunch Man Robbed,” pg. 4:
Frank McKensie, who has a lunch wagon at the corner of Main and Front streets,...
30 March 1890, Boston (MA) Journal, pg. 3:
RED LUNCH WAGONS.
SIGNS OF PROSPERITY AMONG MERCHANTS
WHO SERVE BELATED PEDESTRIANS.
A new lunch wagon has made its appearance on Main street, in front of the city hall. It is appropriately named, “The Owl.” The inside is finished in white wood and southern pine, set off by bird’s eye maple trimmings. One end of the car is left with a clear space for customers, in which two stools are arranged in front of a bird’s eye maple bar. A window opens out on the street from the supply department, for the convenience of those who prefer to eat as they travel homeward.
Another new wagon made its appearance on Front street near the city hall last night. Its exterior is painted red, after the orthodox fashion of Worcester’s night lunch wagons, and red stained glass introduced into small windows adds to its attractiveness. On the inside everything has been arranged with regard to economy of space. The sides are of white wood in natural finish, and the roof is of pine, with oak ribbing. Around one end of the car have been arranged eight stools and a shelving to serve as a table for the guests. A quartered oak counter extends across the car, and separates the culinary department from the dining space. The new carts are at once an ornament and a convenience.
25 June 1890, Fitchburg (MA) Sentinel, pg. 5, col. 4:
After the hearing closed, the petition of Wallace E. Foster, for a common victualler’s license in an open wagon in front of the Wachusett Bank building, was granted. The petitioner proposes to have a lunch wagon where people can obtain a lunch after 6:30 p.m.
6 January 1891, Worcester (MA) Daily Spy, pg. 2:
Immediately ahead of the runaway was C. H. Palmer’s lunch wagon, driven by a boy.
9 August 1891, Worcester (MA) Daily Spy, pg. 1:
A MONOPOLY IN “OWLS.”
CHARLES H. PALMER GETS A PATENT ON
AN IMPROVED LUNCH WAGON.
Charles H. Palmer, the proprietor and owner of several “owls,” or night lunch carts, familiar for about 15 months on the streets of the city, received notice yesterday through Charles H. Burleigh that a patent “for an improved night lunch wagon” had been allowed by the patent office. THis patent covers any moveable dining room, with a kitchen and pantry department. It will give Mr. Palmer a monopoly on these wagons, and in the end should prove a source of no inconsiderable revenue to the enterprising caterer.
It will be two years in September since Mr. Palmer first brought out a lunch wagon, which he “improved” several months later.
There are at present 19 lunch wagons in operation in New England, in the following cities: Springfield, Lowell, Fitchburg, Holyoke, Lynn, Salem, Meriden, Ct., Manchester, N. H., and Providence, R. I.
29 March 1892, Springfield (MA) Republican, pg. 6:
The new night lunch wagon made its first appearance Saturday evening at the corner of North and Depot streets, and there was a great rush for hot coffee, milk, pies and sandwiches up to midnight, the institution being unanimously pronounced of the most desirable character.
21 April 1893, Newark (OH) Daily Advocate, “How He Dined,” pg. 6, col. 3:
The night lunch wagon is a product of the nineteenth century. Its advent has been hailed by thousands of weary night workers, and the delectable frankfurters and hot roll have carried joy and comfort to myriad hearts and stomachs. Now, Tom Carroll is one of the men to whom the night lunch is a thing of beauty and a midnight joy. The other evening Tom came into Saunterer’s room. munching at his heart’s content, with the end of a frankfurter in his hands.
“Where have you been?”
“Been out dining a la carte.”—Boston Budget.
28 April 1893, Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, pg. 3:
LUNCH STANDS ON WHEELS.
A New Idea for Counteracting the In-
fluence of All-Night Saloons.
The all-night lunch wagon is the latest idea of the energetic women’s temperance organizations for counteracting the influence of the all-night saloons and the other places of resort of a big city. THese wagons have already appeared upon the streets of Boston, Hartford, New York and other cities, and will soon be put in operation in Philadelphia. In New York, where the plan has proven highly successful, the wagons take up their stand at certain points every night, remaining open from about 8 o’clock in the evening until 4 or 5 in the morning. They attract considerable attention by their odd appearance, which is not unlike that of a big circus wagon. They are fifteen feet long, six feet wide and six feet high, gaily painted, and with a multiplicity of windows which make them very conspicuous when the lamps are lighted inside.
At one end is a little counter behind which stands a white-aproned and white-capped waiter ready to dole out comestibles to all comers. The bill of fare comprises sandwiches of various kinds, pies, hot Frankfurters, milk, coffee, cold meats and other satisfying items, which are retailed at 5 cents each. The wagons are doing a good business in New York , and it is believed that they can be made a success in this city.
4 June 1893, Springfield (MA) Republican, pg. 6:
Night lunch wagons have become fixtures in Adams, North Adams and Pittsfield.
26 August 1893, Worcester (MA) Daily Spy, pg. 2:
Reported by John C. Dewey: Thomas H. Buckley, Worcester, lunch wagon body, (design patent);...
30 March 1894, Boston (MA) Journal, pg. 7:
LUNCH WAGON MUST GO.
Corporation Counsel Says Aldermen Have
No Right to Grant Locations.
The history of these wagon restaurants is interesting.
The wagons are made and owned by a man at Worcester who owns the wagons and leaves them to the restaurateurs for something like $1 day. By this it will be seen that it has required very little capital to embark in this novel and lucrative employment.
All that was necessary was to secure the influence necessary to get a permit, and then the way was open to the conduct of a very successful commercial enterprise.
Lunch Wagons and Similar Vehicles
LUNCH COUNTERS ON WHEELS.
Hub June 1894 pages 176-177.
In all our large cities there is a great body of workmen who pursue their calling at night, beginning in the early evening and quitting early in the morning. These have the same demands to meet as the day workers, but because they are less numerous and are scattered, they have less accommodation. With them midnight meals and lunches are a necessity, and yet there are few restaurants that keep open all night. To meet the demands midnight-lunch counters mounted upon wheels have been introduced, and good, plain lunches are served at a moderate cost; the portable restaurant has steadily worked its way into public favor, until now it is a recognized factor of midnight life, and wherever introduced it has proved a profitable investment, as well as a great convenience.
Another portable restaurant is the milk lunch wagon. This is essentially a summer arrangement, and it has proved a boon to hosts of thirsty men, women and children. Buttermilk, which is such a treat to the city denizen, is a leading luxury, to be had at five cents a glass; then there is the innocent ‘“milk shake,” of sweet milk and an egg shaken up by a machine to a foam, which answers in the place of an egg nog.
In all the night lunch wagons, coffee, milk, sandwiches and cold cuts are served at moderate prices, while the day wagons, as a rule, carry milk only, but there is an occasional one that serves hot muffins and milk and coffee.
In order that the Hub’s readers may be kept fully posted as to what there is in use in these lines we illustrate the lunch wagon, Fig. I, known in Boston as the “New England Lunch Wagon,” and in New York as “The Owl.” The general dimensions are given for the benefit of those who may wish to build vehicles of this class.
This wagon has become quite a common feature on the streets of Boston and New York. In the latter city an awning covering tables and stools is used during the warm weather.
24 June 1894, Worcester (MA) Daily Spy, part II, pg. 10:
A BEAUTY ON WHEELS.
T. H. Buckley Places a New Night Lunch
Palace Near the City Hall.
The king pin of lunch wagons was moved to the corner of Main and Front streets early Sunday evening. It was one of 20 wagons to be built by T. H. Buckley for the New England Night Lunch Wagon Stock Company, and which are to be placed in western cities. The wagon is a poem of the carriagemaker’s art, and is elaborately finished in colors that are brilliant, under a gloss of heavy veneer.
4 October 1894, Worcester (MA)
LUNCH WAGON CASE SETTLED.
BUckley and Palmer Form a Combination
The manufacturers of night lunch wagons, Thomas H. Buckley and Chas. H. Palmer of this city, have formed a combination of their interests for mutual advantage and protection of the night lunch wagon trade, and all matters heretofore in litigation between them have been amicably settled. The business will be hereafter continued by the parties, but in a manner to prevent conflict of interests under the various patents held by them.
23 October 1894, Gettysburg (PA) Compiler, pg. 1, col. 7:
“ADALBERT,” said Arabella, pushing before the night lunch wagon in Herald Square, “what is that thing?”
“That, my dear,” responded Adalbert, “is a lunch wagon.”
“Oh! And do they serve table d-hote dinner on it?”
“No precious; only a la carte.”—Life.
2 November 1894, McKean Democrat (Smethport, PA), “Luncheon on Wheels,” pg. 4, col. 5:
It is a matter for surprise that the night lunch wagon, so frequent an institution in New England, is in the City of New York so little seen. Only six of these restaurants on wheels are to be found in the city, of which the one in Herald Square is the best known. In Chicago and other Western cities they have also learned to thrive, but the first one opened in the country was at Worcester, Mass., where the number now in business is nineteen.
Boston boasts of no less than seventy-two, all doing a rushing trade. Providence has seventeen; there is but one at Hartford, Conn., but at Springfield, Mass., there are nine, said to be the most spacious and best appointed of any yet built. The New England folk have a knack of keeping them particularly clean, and there’s a balm to thrift and order in the customer’s being able to peer overhead and see just how his coffee is made and how his sandwich is buttered.
One more has been added to New York’s list within the past ten days. The expenses of running these things are nominal. A license has to be procured and paid for annually. The amount for this one has not yet been fixed, but $10 a year is the sum anticipated. For smaller prospects men pay big rents in the city stores without the facility of being able to carry themselves and their stock to any new location they choose at a moment’s notice. That’s the prime attraction of having your shop on wheels.
All the cooking is done on a kerosene stove, but you’re not supposed to get hot food from a lunch wagon beyond your cup of coffee. The only outlay is in the beginning. A wagon costs about $250, and this covers rent for all time.—New York Herald.
The City in Slang:
New York Life and Popular Speech
By Irving L. Allen
Published by Oxford University Press US
The western chuckwagon and urban lunch stands combined in concept to give us lunch wagon in the 1880s. Certain of the new lunch wagons began staying open late at night. by the late 1880s they were called night owls or owl wagons, after the 1840s slang name, night owl, or just ,i>owl, for a nocturnal person who frequented such modest eating places.
The rollable lunch wagons were positioned at night in Union and Madison Squares. In the 1890s writer Brander Matthews had one of his story characters, a park-bench sleeper in Union Square, say to another, “When the owl-wagon is here, you can get a late supper—if you have the price of it. I haven’t.” Everett Shinn painted an atmospheric night scene, The Lunch Wagon, Madison Square (1904), depicting in watercolor a lighted, mobile owl wagon. One of Edward Hopper’s most famous paintings, Nighthawks (1941), another name for a “night owl,” is of lonely figures, seen through plate-glass windows, sitting at a late-night lunch counter. The painting is now a cultural icon of this urban institution.
New York City • Food/Drink • (1) Comments • Saturday, November 08, 2008 • Permalink