Gumball machines are among the earliest coin-operated vending machines. The late Victorian Era tinkerers, coming up with every sort of device imaginable, developed gadgets in the 1880s that could dispense gum, breath mints, and candy, as well as pencils, perfume, razor blades, and even toilet paper. Found in train stations, general stores, smoke shops, and pubs, these machines, constructed of wood and metal, were thought of as “silent salesmen,” working 24 hours a day.
In the 1860s, while Thomas Adams was working as secretary to Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna (who was living in exile on Staten Island), Adams became fascinated by the white, gummy sap of a tree called Manilkara Chicle, which Santa Anna chewed out of habit. Though Adams failed at his attempts to develop a rubber-like material from the tree, his chewing gum was an instant hit.
He dubbed the first product “Adams’ New York Gum No. 1,” which was sold as small spheres wrapped in colored tissue paper. In 1888, Adams developed a coin-operated vending machine to sell sticks of his popular Black Jack and Tutti-Frutti gums for a penny each. The simple machines were easy to fool and quick to jam, but their strategic placement on the platforms of New York’s elevated trains made them a definite success. By 1907, Adams Sons and Company had designed a more efficient and attractive machine that dispensed spherical balls of gum.
The early-20th-century vending machines that followed looked like what most people think of as old-fashioned gumball machines, with claw feet, florid scroll embellishments made of cast iron, and glass globes that showed off their contents and kept the products fresh. However, the mechanisms that worked these devices were complex and costly to repair.
Gumball machines made in the 1920s and 1930s were built using steel construction or finished with porcelain enamel over cast iron, giving the device a durable and attractive appearance, often in a cheerful fire-engine red.
A particularly collectible machine of that era is the boxy globe-less Ro-bo machine, which is similar to the Pulver machines of the early 1900s that held nodding puppets. In the Ro-bo, once you inserted a penny, a gumball dropped from a display case at the top and then an automated human figurine would pick it up and drop it to you down a chute. Any ’20s gumball machine with such clever automated action is highly sought-after.
During Prohibition, gambling, be it cards or slot machines, was banned along with alcohol. You might be surprised to know that some gumball machines were disposed of, as they were considered a form of gambling. One such outlawed machine, the Hawkeye, was built so that on every 10th pull of its lever, a bell would ring and the customer would get his or her penny back along with the gumball...
The 1930s Ad-Lee E-Z had a marquee attached to the top and contained gum with paper inserted into it through a hole drilled in the center. The customer would compare the score on their piece of paper to the score on the marquee, and receive a prize from the store clerk.
Vending machines got simpler after World War II; they were made of plastic and cheaper metal like aluminum, and their mechanical inner workings were uncomplicated and easy to repair. In the ’50s and ’60s, supermarkets and drugstores usually had gumball machines, branded Ford, Northwestern ’60, Toy ’n Joy, Victor, and Oak Acorn. The last of these, Oak Acorn machines, are still made in designs true to the original, by Oak Manufacturing Co., founded in 1948. For beginners, postwar machines are the easiest to start collecting.
Often, sellers don’t have the keys to vintage gumball machines. However, a locksmith can usually make a key for you. Then, inside, you may find treasure. Of course, odds are, you don’t want to try a 50-year-old piece of gum.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth something—the United States has half a dozen serious chewing gum collectors. Extremely rare sticks of gum like Colgan’s Taffy Tolu Chewing Gum can go for hundreds of dollars, whereas more common gum sticks sell for $35 a piece. Also, the coin box could have wheat pennies, buffalo nickels, or mercury dimes inside it.
Antique gumball machines are becoming increasingly rare, so you’re likely to find one with a broken globe or missing parts. Peanut machines, which look a lot like gumball machines, can have damage from the nuts’ salt and oil. Collectors who enjoy restoration often look for globes, chutes, and other usable parts.
Beware of reproductions and vintage machines with reproduction parts like the inexpensive and colorful Carousel brand gumball machines. Look at the casting to see if the item is stamped or marked as a reproduction.