Shiny but not new – Let’s talk diners

It stands as a shiny beacon of a memorable time, a veritable bastion, calling, inviting all peoples to enter and partake of its simple fare. This is the all-American, usually silver, streamlined diner. It evokes the emotion to hark back to nostalgic simpler, happier times of the 1940s and ’50s. No matter who you were, businessman dressed in a suit or dirty construction worker, you were welcome to come on in and relax and enjoy a simple repast.

Though their demand waned in the 1960s and ’70s, it has recently resurged; people seem to be “hungering” for the atmosphere of welcoming smiles and gleaming décor.

Diners began as prefabricated units at the beginning of the 20th century. The enticement was the reasonable price and relative logistics involved. They were carted on flatbeds, put down on a lot and there you were. Since most of the manufacturers were in New Jersey the wealth of diners is located in the Northeast.

A place for the masses, they were regaled with silver formica, big square shiny tile floors and the unforgettable jukebox (which was usually a Wurlitzer). If you wished to play a favorite song there was no need to get up either.  You need only to use the booth box, place your nickel in and press the song you wished. Like magic, your selection played.

A diner possessed a counter with chrome and vinyl stools, along with inviting vinyl booths, for those who wanted a little privacy). The bright colors were wonderful in the distinct reds and aquas. There was the recognizable, usually green, milkshake machine by Hamilton Beach, and the covered plastic pedestal display case under which were goodies like the 15-cents-a-slice pie.

Their main big ticket item and popular attraction was the breakfast, which was served all day/night long. All of the meals were reasonably priced and simple, but hearty.  It demanded no extra knowledge of cuisine.

The waitresses, complete with uniform and aprons, were friendly and usually knew the names of the regulars.  They always provided service with a smile and maybe a joke too.

Diners were in full force around WWII and into the 1950s, but eventually fast food chains squeezed most of them out of business.

However, it didn’t kill them in many hearts and minds.

There are about 2,500 diners in existence today with four manufacturers still producing them – at a very high cost, I might add. The demand for them has increased several percent in recent years.

A well-known artist/photographer, William Tieger, captures nostalgia in the form of hand painted reverse photos and other artistic methods. We have one of his works, a photo of the inside of an old diner that has the bright deep colors you would expect. This is one great way to collect the past. Another way to remember the glory days of diners is to collect postcards showing them in real photos or illustrations.

Postcard collector and author Don Preziosi shares his love of bygone diners in his book, Classic American Diners. He sent along some of his favorite images, which are featured in this article.

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Don Preziosi and his wife Newly have been postcard and ephemera collectors and dealers for three decades. Located in northern New Jersey, they can be found at postcard shows and on the Internet. Don has been writing a column about Linen Era postcards since 1983.

Don’s book, Classic American Diners, will take you on a nostalgic, state-by-state tour of architecturally unique, vintage American diners. Nearly 450 examples are included, along with a history of the diner and related information about postcards and matchbook covers of the era.

To order a copy of Classic American Diners, visit

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