Register Overlay (McDonald’s)

The register overlay used at a McDonald’s fast-food restaurant is composed of black paper with multi-colored boxes that signify different menu items. It is organized into a 12 by 10 column grid and measures 11.8 inches wide by 9.8 inches high. Cash register buttons programmed to specific products and options helped speed the food ordering process by directly communicating orders to the workers filling them. On this overlay the breakfast items are displayed with a yellow background, main courses with blue, beverages with brown, and deserts with pink. Additional register commands are displayed with a white background. In the 1990s, computer touch screens replaced register overlays at most fast-food restaurants.
As the popularity of fast-food restaurants continued to grow throughout the 1970s and 1980s, fast-food chains needed to develop new technologies to keep up with the increasing demand. Restaurants perfected and minimized steps in the ordering and assembly processes to serve as many customers as possible. The strict routines of each worker and the increase in automation led to criticism of the degree of systematization in fast-food restaurants, and some even speculated that fast-food workers would be replaced by robots. Although never reaching this extreme, the rise of fast-food led to unique technological innovations such as preprogrammed registers and computer touch screens.
The McDonald’s Corporation is one of the most recognizable hamburger restaurants in the United States. As of 2011, the McDonald’s Corporation and franchisees were operating in 119 countries with 1.9 million employees, making it the 4th largest employer in the world.
In 1940, Richard (Dick) and Maurice (Mac) McDonald opened the first McDonald’s Bar-B-Q drive-in restaurant in San Bernardino, California. In 1948, the brothers redesigned their menu, centering on the 15 cent hamburger. In 1954, Ray Kroc, a Multimixer (milkshake machine) salesman, became interested in the McDonalds brothers’ high volume restaurant. He worked out a deal with the brother to be their franchising agent and opened the first franchise location in Illinois the following year. Under Kroc’s direction, the company grew to become the giant we know today.
Object Name
cash register overlay
Physical Description
paper (overall material)
overall: 30 cm x 25 cm; 11 13/16 in x 9 27/32 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
See more items in
Work and Industry: Occupations
FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000
Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000
Exhibition Location
National Museum of American History
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center


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