Why Do Diners Look Like Old-Fashioned Train Cars?

Just add tracks!

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So, why do we frequently encounter diners that look like train cars? The story unfolds when you take things back to the diner's original manifestation as a moving vehicle.

As Atlas Obscura explained in a deep dive on the topic, "Diners started out on wheels. In the late 19th century, street carts selling snacks and lunches had morphed into roving lunch wagons." Writer Anne Ewbank continues, "[w]hile some lunch wagons sported Gilded-Age decor, such as elaborate coffee urns and etched windows, many were ramshackle, giving them an iffy reputation."

As a surge in rail travel and dining cars grew in the early 20th century and these lunch wagons morphed into restaurants that stayed put, diners kept the similar tube-like shape and design of a train. "Tiny lunch wagons couldn't accommodate the demand for fast, tasty meals. So manufacturers began building shippable, train-like 'dining cars,' which people had shortened to "diners" by the mid-1920s."

Come the 1930s, diners channeled the sleek, chrome design of trains in an effort to attract customers. And now? "Many still-existing diners retain long, train-like shapes," notes Ewbank. "Though the vast majority of classic diners were prefabricated, a handful were even made out of old train and trolley cars, since they fit so well the pre-conceived idea of a diner's structure." Read the full article on Atlas Obscura here and learn more about the history of the American diner on SmithsonianMag.com.

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