What accounts for our enduring affection for the all-American diner? Whether remembered as the site of a memorable first date, for regional fare on a cross-country trip, or as a go-to spot for “breakfast” after clubbing, the diner remains a source of national nostalgia and at the heart of popular roadside culture. In conjunction with the “Road Trip!” exhibit at the New Haven Museum, Christopher Dobbs—a diner aficionado and veteran administrator at several Connecticut museums—will present “The Architecture of the American Diner: From Wagon Wheels to Stainless Steel,” on April 13, 2017, at 5:30 pm. at the New Haven Museum. Admission will be free of charge.
According to Dobbs, as a symbol of roadside America the diner has had numerous scholars and greasy-spoon buffs write about its origins and social milieu. Attempting to define the diner, writers have often assigned it four essential characteristics: the structure must be prefabricated and hauled to a site; it must have a counter and stools; it must offer “home cooking” at reasonable prices, and the cooking should take place behind the counter.
During his presentation, Dobbs will analyze a fifth characteristic that he says has been neglected: The American diner is linked to transportation design. Beginning in the 1870s with the "birth" of the diner as a horse-drawn lunch wagon, Dobbs’ pictorial history will trace the diner's evolution from 1900s-era Pullman railroad car to the 1930s streamlined designs found in air, rail, and automobile aesthetics, and its final transformation in the late 1950s into a space-age eatery.
Dobbs has over 20 years of extensive museum experience and is currently executive director of the Connecticut River Museum (CRM) in Essex, Connecticut. Prior to joining CRM he was director of the Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society, and associate
director of education at Mystic Seaport. He has also worked for the New York State Historical Association and Conner Prairie Museum. He holds an M.A.in museum studies from the State University of New York College at Oneonta and a B.A. in American history from Indiana University.
Dobbs first developed an interest in diners as a child going out to breakfast with his father – always getting a heaping stack of blueberry pancakes. In graduate school his passion for diners took an academic turn. Since then he not only continues to search out these epicurean relics of Americana, but has written papers, articles, and regularly lectured on the architecture of the American diner and its place in our country’s culture.
Dobbs’ lecture aligns perfectly with the New Haven exhibit, “Road Trip!”, which focuses on the joy of trading speed and convenience for the excitement of exploration and discovery of the unexpected, “Road Trip!” includes vintage photos of quirky roadside attractions, souvenirs and mementos crowdsourced from Greater New Haven residents, artifacts from the Connecticut Historical Society, Museum of Connecticut History, the American Diner Museum, and even a 1960s-inspired, turquoise-and-white diner booth, specially built for the exhibit by the New England Seating Company. “Road Trip!” was organized for the New Haven Museum by guest curator Mary M. Donohue, an architectural historian and assistant publisher of Connecticut Explored magazine. The exhibition will run through June 17, 2017.