A Brief History of the Drive-In (and Fast Food, Too)

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 20, 2019

Whether or not you like fast food, the drive-in is a big part of American car culture, and it has an interesting history that goes way back before Ray Kroc’s “eureka” moment at the first McDonald’s restaurant in 1954.

Isn't that evocative? Dick's is in Seattle. (Wikipedia photo)

Let’s go back to 1921, when an ill-remembered fellow named Jesse G. Kirby opened the Pig Stand in Texas. By 1924, there were 10 locations in Dallas, and they were selling 50,000 burgers and other sandwiches weekly. Kirby seems quite enterprising, having based his restaurant on the fact that people with cars would probably rather stay in them to eat. He introduced the concept of the carhop (initially male), a cherished part of drive-in tradition. The food was delivered on aluminum trays that hooked into the car’s doors.

A Pig Stand ad from 1924, when franchises were available in Texas.

Kirby’s Pig Stand is credited, according to Texas Monthly, with food firsts, too, including the first onion rings, chicken-friend steak and Texas toast. The chain continued to grow, but the last one closed in 2006. Before it did, the Texas Observer visited and recorded these impressions:

At the Pig Stand today, nostalgia rules without apology. Oldies giants like Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys, and The Kingsmen are still going strong on the box, and culinary standards like the Pig Sandwich and the Black Cow-as root beer floats are known to insiders-are still on the menu. For misplaced health nuts, there’s a seasoned pork loin salad. The interior decor is heavily larded with porcine kitsch.

The word “carhop” (derived from “bellhops” in hotels) was first used in print circa 1937, and with the men away women took over carhop duties during World War II. They lasted through the 50s, but by the mid-1960s carhop service was being replaced with drive-throughs. (Though Sonic still uses carhops.)  Carhops are frequently on scene in film noirs and in 1950s B-pictures about delinquent youth with hot rods.

The original meals on wheels? Carhops on roller skates. (Clinton Steeds - Flickr: Carhops via Wikipedia)

In 1948, according to the company, another go-getter, Harry Snyder opened the first drive-through hamburger stand in California. He called it In-N-Out Burger. That same year, Snyder figured out a two-way speaker that let people order their meals and communicate with the kitchen—all without leaving the bench seat of their Hudsons. At first, Harry supplied his customers with the brown paper that packaged his buns for lap napkins, but by 1961 the lap mats were custom made in pink—later to have colorful printing and maps.

It's historic! Mat's Drive-In in Montana is on the National Register of Historic Places. (Wikipedia photo)

Yes, I know In-N-Out is still around. There are 300 of them, in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Texas. There’s a replica of the original one in Baldwin Park, California.

Stewart's in Tuckerton, New Jersey has been in business since the 1970s. (Wikipedia photo)

The first Jack in the Box opened in 1951—with no inside seating. It also used two-way speakers, and a giant clown because, well, why not? People were scared at first. OK, now we get to Ray Kroc. In 1954 he was a struggling salesman, trying to sell something called the Multimixer, which could make several milkshakes at once.

As seen in the movie The Founder, Kroc wondered why a restaurant named McDonald’s ordered five of them. He visited the store in San Bernardino, and was amazed at the operation—which centered on a very limited menu and ultra-fast assembly-line service. He went into business with Dick and Mac McDonald, and started franchising the operation in 1955. By 1961, he’d bought the brothers out. Here's a scene from the movie:

So we have McDonald’s today. No clowns, no carhops, but fast food served at a counter or via the drive-in. It’s the world’s largest restaurant franchise, but lacks the racy subtext of those early drive-ins. Kroc’s mantra was to keep it clean, and to keep it wholesome.

In case you started reading this thinking it would be about drive-in movies, let me add a useful addendum. Richard Hollingshead opened the first one of those in Camden, New Jersey in 1933, around the same time drive-throughs were taking off. Again, Americans were in cars, and they didn’t want to get out of them. Admission was 25 cents per car, plus 25 cents per person.

This rare survivor is in Warren, Ohio. (Wikipedia photo)

The story is that Hollingshead saw the drive-in as an answer to a family problem: His mother loved movies, but was too large to sit in theater seats. So the loyal son bought an old projector and showed films on an old bedsheet in the back yard. He decided to commercialize his idea, and developed a ramp system so that every car would get a view of the screen.

By the 1940s, they’d perfected (if that’s the word, since the sound was tinny) in-car speakers. Drive-ins peaked during the big-fin era—there were 4,063 of them in 1958. There’s only 400 of them now, a victim of television, the value of land and other factors. No doubt some of the people reading this story owe their existence—and conception—to the existence of drive-in movie theaters. Security was lax, and watching the film wasn’t always a priority.

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