Whether you love the food or not, it’s hard to deny the role that McDonald’s has played in American culture. Since those Golden Arches first appeared above a McDonald’s in Phoenix, Arizona in 1953, they’ve loomed large over every nook and cranny of the country. Even people who aren’t crazy about the chain restaurant’s offerings feel some level of nostalgia when looking at old pictures of McDonald’s. Presenting Food, Folks, And Fun: vintage and unusual photos of an American icon.
‘Having Your Birthday Party At McDonald’s Was Totally Cool’
As reddit user moonbeen noted when sharing this photo, “having your birthday party at McDonald’s was totally cool.” It was a favorite party venue for tons of kids across the country, with most of them receiving a special visit from Ronald McDonald himself during the festivities.
Another redditor recalled the games played during McDonald’s parties, such as stacking Big Mac boxes. “We’d go to one of these [parties] a week for free food and so my mom could gossip with the other moms,” they added. It truly was a fun gathering place for everyone back then.
The Very First Ronald McDonald
McDonald’s mascot, a red-headed clown named Ronald McDonald, was created by someone whose name might be familiar to you: Willard Scott. Scott, who later became the Today Show weatherman, dressed as "Ronald McDonald, the Hamburger-Happy Clown" in three TV commercials in 1963, introducing the character to the world.
At the height of Ronald’s popularity, there were as many as 300 full-time clowns employed at McDonald’s restaurants across the country. That is a lot of hamburger-happy clowns!
McDonald’s Introduced The Drive-Thru In 1975
While not the first restaurant to offer drive-thru windows, McDonald’s began offering the service at its Sierra Vista, Arizona, location in 1975. The company aimed to serve customers in 50 seconds or less with this convenient new feature that customers quickly started to love.
The windows were a hit, and today more than half of sales at McDonald’s restaurants come from the drive-thru. This mid-1970s photo shows one of the restaurant’s very first drive-thru windows. Today, many McDonald’s located in high-density areas offer “walk-thru” windows.
In 1984, then-First Lady Nancy Reagan visited a McDonald’s in Atlanta, Georgia, as part of a national campaign against drug abuse. Mrs. Reagan became flustered during a string of tough policy questions, and said, "I didn’t intend for this to take on a political tone, I’m just here for the drugs."
Of course, she realized immediately how funny that sounded and put her hand to her head. We see that moment here, as McDonald’s official Dick Starmann and the other employees have a big laugh at the First Lady’s expense!
1 In 8 Americans Have Worked At McDonald’s!
One in eight Americans have worked at a McDonald’s at some point in their lives, according to the best selling book Fast Food Nation. Wow! That makes the company one of the country’s largest employers. Plenty of now-famous folks have worked at McDonald’s, including Jay Leno, Paul Ryan, Pink, and Keenan Ivory Wayans.
Here’s a group of happy employees at a Glendale, California, McDonald’s in 1979. None of them became famous, as far as we know, but they look like they enjoy their jobs anyway!
The McDonald’s PlayPlace Was A Childhood Favorite
Lots of people have fun memories of playing on these playgrounds as kids, usually as a reward for finishing their McDonald’s lunch or dinner. Going to fast food restaurants was seen as more of a treat in past decades, whereas it’s a daily amenity for many today.
This photo of a birthday party shows several iconic PlayPlace attractions like the bouncy spring toys, Officer Big Mac Climber, and the Hamburglar Spiral Slide. Vintage McDonald’s PlayPlace pieces like these can bring in big bucks at auction today.
On The St. Louis Riverfront
A nostalgiac reddit thread discussing McDonald’s restaurants that are no longer around featured this location, which was a riverboat in St. Louis. User sobie17 posted the photo and several people shared their fond memories of the McDonald’s location. “Whenever we took field trips to the science center or zoo we would always stop here for lunch. I miss the riverboats,” lamented Maverick814.
The Riverfront Times says that the floating restaurant was operational for 20 years before being “unceremoniously decommissioned” and traveling “to join that great Hamburglar in the sky.”
Ronald Does Grunge With Kurt Cobain
In 1992, legendary grunge rock star Kurt Cobain was on tour with Nirvana in Singapore when they stopped into a local McDonald’s for a bite. Ever the gracious visitor, he offered this statue of Ronald McDonald a drag from his cigarette.
It’s worth noting that Cobain also popped into a KFC during this same outing, where he posed for a lewd photo with a sculpture of the fried chicken restaurant’s mascot, Colonel Sanders.
This Staten Island McDonald’s Is Still In Business
Staten Island Live did a feature on this piece of McDonald’s history in 2014. The flashback photo, taken in 1973, shows the grand opening of Staten Island’s first McDonald’s.
Owner Jerry Sweeney, pictured third from right, said in an interview with the Advance that he was nervous to open the business. He recalled, “It was kind of tough in the beginning, and we had to scrape by for a while.” Sweeney added that the restaurant didn’t have enough buns on opening day. Luckily, a shipment arrived via delivery truck just an hour before they opened!
Fashion Icons Need Fries, Too
Karl Lagerfeld was the iconic director of the French fashion house Chanel, recognized as one of the world’s top style makers. Obsessed with image, he was known for his trademark slicked-back hair, black sunglasses, and fingerless gloves.
Given his reputation and status in the world of high fashion, it’s more than a little unexpected to see this photo of him casually eating a Big Mac at a McDonald’s restaurant in 1990. And interesting to see that he removed his signature gloves for the occasion!
McDonald’s In Japan
In this photo taken in Tokyo in 1985, we see some diners enjoying a meal at McDonald’s. The first McDonald’s in Japan opened on July 20th, 1971, and there are about 3,000 restaurants in the country today.
McDonald’s menu offerings in Japan are very different than the American versions. Some of the more unique items include a teriyaki-style Big Mac made of pork, Shrimp Filet-O sandwich, Black Squid Ink Burger, and green tea-flavored milkshakes.
Mickey D’s In The 1960s
The ’60s were a big decade for McDonald’s. For one thing, the chain introduced its still-beloved Filet-O-Fish sandwich in 1962, advertising it as "the fish that catches people." The sandwich was developed in part for Catholic communities because burger sales dropped drastically in those areas on Fridays and throughout Lent.
The Big Mac hit the menu in 1968, and that same year McDonald’s also opened its 1,000th restaurant. This photo of a bustling Mickey D’s is dated mid-1960s.
A Fun Place To Work
An Imgur user shared this vintage photo, along with some background information on it. "This was the McDonald’s on Maynard St. in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1977. It’s no longer there. It was demolished about 15 yrs ago."
Someone else commented, "I love it.. maybe it’s just this photo, but it seems McDonald’s was nicer in the 70s." It does look like everyone’s having fun as they work alongside Ronald at the register.
The Jacksons At McDonald’s Japan
By the early 1970s, the Jackson Five were everywhere — including McDonald’s. Marlon and Jermaine Jackson stopped by for a bite while they were visiting Japan on May 7, 1973. There’s no word on the whereabouts of Michael, Tito, or Jackie while these two chowed down on some good old American burgers.
The band played a concert at Koseinenkin Hall in Osaka during this trip overseas. It was recorded and released as the live album The Jackson 5 in Japan and eventually sold over a million copies.
All Aboard McBarge, A Floating McDonald’s!
McBarge was a floating McDonald’s that was built for the 1986 World Exposition in Vancouver, British Columbia. The plans were for McBarge to continue operating as a restaurant after the Expo, but instead, it was abandoned. To this day it’s anchored in an inlet just north of Burnaby, British Columbia.
In 2004, Marvel Entertainment and New Line Cinema used McBarge to film parts of Blade: Trinity. Since then, the boat’s current owner has announced a few different plans for McBarge (including a $4-5 million renovation), but nothing has panned out yet.
Even The Queen Eats At McDonald’s!
Well, we’re not quite convinced that she actually ate there, but here is proof that Queen Elizabeth II has been to a McDonald’s! This photo was taken on July 31, 1998, when the Queen visited a McDonald’s restaurant in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, England (at an outlet mall, no less!).
Fun fact: The Queen actually owns a McDonald’s franchise about 80 miles outside of London. It’s not hers personally but is owned by The Crown Estate, which is a collection of properties that belong to the British monarch. The Queen’s McDonald’s is pretty high tech, with phone charging stations, wi-fi access, and Samsung tablets at each table!
Get The Gipper A Big Mac
During a campaign stop in 1984, President Ronald Reagan popped into a McDonald’s in Northport, Alabama. The restaurant set up a memorial to the event afterward. A display case now holds a framed photo of Reagan eating a burger along with a bronze bust of his head and a plaque reading "President Reagan ate here."
The travel site Roadside America describes the event. "Reagan walked to the counter, and being unaccustomed to fast food dining, turned to an aide and asked ‘What am I supposed to order?’ Then the President sat down next to two men (selected by his Secret Service agents) and began to discuss University of Alabama football." Just like regular people!
Ray Kroc In Front Of His Business
Businessman Ray Kroc made McDonald’s into the most profitable fast food company in the world after he joined the corporation in 1955. The former milkshake mixer salesman found great success with his business model and he became staggeringly wealthy as the company grew.
One of his most famous quotes is "If you work just for money, you’ll never make it, but if you love what you’re doing and you always put the customer first, success will be yours."
Motörhead Does Mickey D’s
The English heavy metal band Motörhead might be listed as a top pick on VH1’s "Greatest Artists of Hard Rock" roster but that doesn’t mean that the guys didn’t enjoy playing around at McDonald’s when they had the chance.
This photo from a Chicago restaurant was taken in 1983. From left to right we see drummer Phil Taylor, singer/bassist Lemmy Kilmister, and guitarist Brian Robertson as they pal around with a statue of Ronald.
My, How Prices Have Changed
McDonald’s has always been a destination for budget-friendly food, but this photo of the restaurant’s 1972 menu shows just how inexpensive prices used to be. A Filet-O-Fish, which sold for only 48 cents in ’72 costs around $3.79 these days, depending on where you are in the country.
It’s also interesting to see that there were only six sandwich options back then and no combo deals. Today, there are dozens of sandwiches and other tasty treats on the menu.