The steps leading to the invention of an American cultural original, the diner eatery, began in Providence through the initiative of Walter Scott. He was born on November 28, 1841 in Cumberland, the son of lawyer Joseph A. Scott and Juliet Howland Scott. By age eleven Scott was peddling candy, fruit, and newspapers on the streets of Providence to supplement his widowed mother’s small income. In 1858 at age seventeen, Scott started an after hours business selling sandwiches and coffee to denizens of men’s clubs and to night workers in Providence.
Following his rejection to serve in the military during the Civil War due to defective eyesight, Scott moved to Vineland, New Jersey and tried his hand at farming. Unsuccessful, he soon returned to Providence and found work as a pressman for the Providence Evening Press and, later, with the Morning Star. Between editions, Scott resumed his youthful entrepreneurial ways and began to provide fellow workers with light snacks and coffee. Sometime in 1872, he gave up his newspaper job and used his savings to open a mobile food business full time selling his sandwiches and coffee from a horse-drawn light freight wagon which he located in front of the Barton Block at the corner of Westminster and Weybosset streets in downtown Providence.
Although the custom of street peddlers, hawking pastries and other comestibles, was well-established in Providence at the beginning of the 19th century, Walter Scott was nearly alone in selling his victuals to night shift workers. Most of the other street vendors worked out of stalls in the first floor of the Market House. These stands were run by small operators who styled themselves as “caterers.” Scott took the alfresco experience to a new level by offering his wares from the back of a wagon, which carried more and moved from workplace to work- place. His innovation marked the birth of the lunch cart and the fore-runner of the classic American diner.
The lunch cart concept went from Providence to Worcester in 1887 where Thomas Buckley became the first of many who organized companies to build lunch wagons and eventually stationary dining cars. The stationary diner came about because American cities experienced traffic congestion caused by the mobile wagons, known as “Night Owls.” The classic chrome interiors, featuring neon signs, hearty, inexpensive, quick-stop dining grew out of the entrepreneurial insights of Providence’s Walter Scott.
Scott retired from the lunch wagon business in 1917 having made a living but not a fortune. He died on October 26, 1924 and is buried in Providence’s Swan Point Cemetery.