Published: June 24, 2003
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The diner is at the center of a new museum exhibit in Providence, which also happens to be the birthplace of this fixture on the American landscape. The major new show currently on view through June 2008 at the Culinary Archives & Museum at Johnson & Wales University is “Diners: Still Cookin’ in the 21st Century.”
Curated by diner authority Richard J.S. Gutman, a Massachusetts architect, the diner exhibit traces the streamlined lineage of diners from their Nineteenth Century origins as wheeled wagons in Providence to their ubiquitous presence alongside roads and highways today.
Entering through a gleaming stainless steel and neon portal (fabricated by Kullman Industries, Inc, a New Jersey concern making diners since 1927), visitors to the exhibit enter the world of diners, as they were and as they are. Drawn from the 14,000-rdf_Description collection of Gutman and his wife, Kellie O. Gutman, there are dozens of images and artifacts, including giant neon signs, stereo slides in a 3-D viewer, models, stools, wheels and a video documentary on breakfast in a neighborhood diner.
They all serve to trace the origins of lunch wagons, as they were then called in 1872, and their evolution into the familiar and comforting institutions they have become. The exhibit panels, as fashioned by the firm of Malcolm Great Designers, offer rarely seen, evocative views of how the world has changed in the past century and a quarter, and how diners kept pace with those changes.
From the earliest days of “meals on wheels” on through the golden age of streamlined stainless steel, the exhibit informs viewers on how construction technology enabled diners to become larger yet still able to be transported fully constructed. The more singular designs of the 1960s, from colonial to space age, reveal that diners, like many people of that decade, preferred to dance to the beat of a different drummer. After diners were “rediscovered” in the 1970s, they returned to the reassuring look and feel of the golden days.
The exhibit also introduces the pioneers of the diner phenomenon: Walter Scott, the sometime peddler who first hitched a horse to a wagon and sold sandwiches to the night shift; unemployed engineer Sam Jones, who first brought customers inside his wagon to eat; Charles Palmer, the father of drive-thru; former janitor Thomas H. Buckley, whose tireless promotion popularized the whole concept and won him the crown of “Lunch Wagon King”; Patrick J. Tierney, who bestowed on the enterprises electric lights and toilets; and Jerry O’Mahony, who “built ’em big, built ’em strong,” and built ’em looking much like they do today.
The Culinary Archives & Museum is at 315 Harborside Boulevard. For information, 401-598-2805 or culinary.org.
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