The first automats — restaurants serving food primarily through vending machines — were established in Germany at the end of the 19th century, where vending machines for everything were in vogue.

They quickly spread across Europe and the U.S. The first American automat was opened in Philadelphia in 1902 by the Horn & Hardart food services company, which later opened hundreds of locations there and in New York.

The setup was innovative — customers would exchange cash for nickels or tokens, then peruse walls of glass cases featuring hot and cold sandwiches, soups, pies and other treats. Customers would insert coins in a slot next to their desired food, and the case would unlock. After they took the food, the case would be restocked by a staff member in the kitchen behind the cases.

Automats were beloved for their cheap prices, consistent quality and egalitarian atmosphere — one could come in for a cup of coffee or settle in for a full meal. They became a favorite haunt for starving artists and actors.

Ultimately they fell out of favor with the rise of fast food restaurants in the 1970s. Most of the Horn & Hardart New York locations were turned into Burger Kings.

The last automat in the United States closed in 1991. via Tumblr