66 DESIGN NEW ENGLAND NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2016
The national go-to for simple, cheap comfort food started
with an entrepreneurial roadside vendor in Providence
Here’s a story about the hidden power of the press. In mid-19th-century Providence, a young man named Walter Scott, who’d been peddling news- papers, fruit, and homemade candy on the street since he was 11, realized that the folks who worked all night to put out the city’s three newspapers needed food. Starting small, he modified a bantam freight wagon so that he could sit inside it, with a roof over his head and windows facing both the
sidewalk and the street. One night in 1872, with his trusty horse, Patient Dick, in the traces,
he pulled up in front of the Providence Journal, leaned out the window, and sold a sandwich (or
perhaps a cup of coffee or a hard-boiled egg). Thus began the history of the American diner.
At least that’s what Richard Gutman thinks, and he should know. Gutman is the world’s
foremost authority on diners. He’s been researching and writing about them since 1970, when
written by bruce irving
diners operating in Massachusetts include
(clockwise from upper left) Capitol Diner in
Lynn, built in 1928 and on the National Register of
Historic Places, Casey’s Diner in Natick, built in
1922, and the Mill Pond Diner in Wareham, a
1950s classic where in 2014 a scene from Ted 2 was
filmed with Mark Wahlberg.
he was a Cornell architecture student. While
he was an undergraduate, a group of British design critics visited the campus and
were struck by a building form around town
they’d never seen before — the diner. As Gutman writes in his bible American Diner: Then
and Now, “After a closer look, I guessed that
neither had I.” (Icons can be that way.) Even
though there had been four of them within
walking distance of his childhood home in
Allentown, Pennsylvania, he’d not really
seen them, so much a part of the everyday
built landscape were they. After 45 years of
hard study, he’s become to diners “what Jane
Goodall is to chimpanzees,” says smithsonian.
com. He’s consulted on Barry Levinson’s classic movie Diner, helps individuals and museums find and restore them, and has outfitted
his own home in Boston with stools, a marble countertop, and a menu board he salvaged
from a Michigan diner.
Back in Providence all those years ago,
Walter Scott soon had competition, as other
“night lunch wagons” set up around town, servicing night owls after the restaurants closed.
People liked the wagons’ informality, the good
prices, the chance to gossip and trade news,
and (as would remain a hallmark of diners)
eating home-style comfort food. The wagons
became more elaborate, and the idea migrated
to other cities, including bustling Worcester, Massachusetts, where in 1891 Charles H.
Palmer patented a design for a horse-drawn
An American Story