EDITOR’S NOTE: Imagine Nashua: Then & Now is a weekly photo column by Don Himsel. Each week, he will feature an old photo within a more recent photo, along with the story behind it.
Never let it be said that we newspapermen can’t innovate.
Newspapermen, yes, because it was Walter Scott, a Providence Journal employee in 1850 who saw that he had a brighter future selling sandwiches, eggs and coffee to the men working the late shift than working in the pressroom with his pals.
Other late-shift workers in the city became customers, too, so in 1872 he bought a horse and old freight cart and the lunch cart business was born.
Charles Palmer patented a design in 1891. There was a space to eat in the cart, as well as a walk-up window. Later, Worcester man Thomas H. Buckley developed a line of wagons, eventually starting up the New England Lunch Wagon Company.
Architect and diner researcher Richard Gutman has curated a diner exhibit at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, where the foundation of the country’s love of diners was set.
According to Gutman, the carts were allowed to operate at night and had to close up shop at daybreak. Customer demand, and disregard for the law by the operators, led to them staying open longer and eventually, parking permanently.
Hub was a trade journal published from 1855-1915. A story published in 1894 reads:
“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.”
“It is so arranged that either one or two horses can draw it, and it is to stand near the curbstone, so that customers can enter from the sidewalk, the same as they would any restaurant, and get a very nice lunch, or if they so wish, they can stand on the sidewalk and get a lunch served out through the window just over the back wheel.”
An accompanying illustration shows what they call a “New England Lunch Wagon,” as it’s referred to in the Boston area. It doesn’t say it’s a Buckley-built vehicle, “The general dimensions are given for the benefit of those who may wish to build vehicles of this class,” it reads. The setup looks similar to the Eagle Cafe in the Nashua Historical Society’s photo, but even closer is the Morrisania Wagon Works wagon, featured in the journal in 1897.
In Gutman’s book, “American Diner Then and Now,” he writes that, in New York City, the Church Temperance Society set up lunch wagons to compete with free lunches given at area saloons. “Generally the wagons were set up in neighborhoods where those manning cab stands, car stables or street railways could be enticed to partake of hot coffee instead of liquor to stay warm. The wagons were in use both day and night.”
Perhaps that’s why the gentleman in the photo was set up at Railroad Square, in front of what was then a busy train depot at the corner of Canal and Main. Regardless of the reason, Eagle Cafe Quick Lunch was most certainly part of a food service revolution in Nashua.
Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590 or DHimsel@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Himsel on Twitter @Telegraph_DonH.