In 1852, at the age of 11, Rhode Island native Walter Scott got his start in the food business in Providence. He peddled newspapers, fruit, and homemade candy as a means of supporting his family. After some time, Scott realized that late-night newspaper workers had nowhere to go out to eat after their shifts, and so he began to sell sandwiches and coffee to these men and other night owls.
Eventually, Scott built himself a hand cart so that he could carry more items with him. In 1872, Scott replaced his hand cart with a horse hooked up to a small freight wagon and parked it in front of the Providence Journal office.
Only homemade items were served from the cart: sliced chicken, ham sandwiches, boiled eggs and buttered bread, and pie. And yes, Scott did bake his own bread and pie. Except for the chicken, which cost thirty cents, customers could get anything on the menu for a nickel.
Now, if you've ever been out on the streets of Providence (or any city street for that matter) between dusk and four AM, you'll know that you are guaranteed to encounter some unruly folk. Things were not so different in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Scott came up with a plan to ensure that he was paid for every meal he served: if a suspicious-looking individual approached, he would take their hat as collateral for payment. In addition, he kept a hickory club in the wagon "in case of emergency." As a result, his slogan became: "Get a hat, or give a sore head." He did amass quite the collection of stolen hats, all the result of unpaid bills.
As other businessmen caught on to Scott's lunch cart idea, his profits dwindled as food costs rose. Additionally, his competitors started offering free fixings such as onion slices, ketchup and mustard, which also ate away at Scott's bottom line as he tried to keep up with these new demands. Scott retired from the lunch cart business in 1917, stating: "I guess I've done my share in putting the night lunch on the map, and I'm perfectly willing to step back and let others do the scratching for the dollars that came pretty easy in the old days."
On November 15, 2009, Walter Scott, the Providence entrepreneur whose 1872 horse-drawn lunch wagon became the forerunner of the classic American diner and inspired a new American industry, was posthumously inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Conley Conference Center in Providence.
Richard J.S. Gutman, director and curator of the Culinary Arts Museum, accepted the award on behalf of Scott, who is featured in the museum's signature exhibition, "Diners: Still Cookin' in the 21st Century."
Also inducted into the Heritage Hall of Fame: Major Gen. Zenas R. Bliss (1835-1900), Dr. Charles Carroll (1876-1936), Rev. John B. Diman (1863-1949), Chief Justice Thomas Durfee (1826-1901), Amasa Eaton (1841-1914), Col. Robert Hale Ives Goddard (1837-1916), John Gorham (1810-1898), Dr. Ramon Guiteras (1858-1917), Dr. John William Keefe (1863-1935), Annie Smith Peck (1850-1935) and Bishop William Stang (1854-1907).
The above information about Walter Scott was taken from Richard J.S. Gutman's book, American Diner Then and Now.
By the 1890s, Walter Scott's lunch wagon idea had spread as far west as Chicago and Denver.
From the Culinary Arts Museum Collection
Drawing by H.G. Maratta
Chicago's "Levee District" at Night