Coin-operated machines, toys, and games (also known as coin-op or just coin op) range from cash registers and pinball machines to piggy banks and jukeboxes. Today, most monetary transactions occur with the swipe of a card, but in the early part of the 20th-century, the coin-op industry was so powerful, it briefly delayed the design of the Liberty Head nickel.
The simplest coin-operated machine is not even a mechanical one. It’s called a still bank, which describes any type of receptacle designed to receive and store coins. The most famous type of still bank is the piggy bank, which gets it name from an orange-colored clay called pygg, used in the Middle Ages to make jars for storing staples such as salt. Sometime in 18th-century England, these jars had morphed into hollow containers with a coin slot, often shaped like a pig to make a visual pun on the name of the clay.
To retrieve the coins inside, one would have to smash the jar, which is why so few of these early pig jars, as they were known, have survived. In more modern times, removable plugs have spared piggy banks and made them the fun collectible they are today. Ceramics manufacturers as prestigious as Belleek and Delft made piggy banks, as did numerous Staffordshire, England, potteries and U.S. companies such as Frankoma, McCoy, Hull, and the American Bisque Company—its ABC banks are highly sought today.
Mechanical banks have even more fun with the act of feeding a coin into the bank’s holding compartment. Those from the late 1800s were often made of diecast iron. One particularly rare bank patented in 1876 and made by J. & E. Stevens Co. featured a bank teller who stood behind his cage holding a plate—when a coin was dropped on the plate, the arm would be raised so that the coin would slide into the bank. Another from the same era consisted of a cannon that fired a coin into a nearby octagonal fort.
Other mechanical banks from that era were made of wood. Many of these were miniature bureaus—open a drawer, place a coin in it, and close the drawer to deposit the coin. Mechanical banks from the 1920s we made out of lithographed or painted tin. Many of these resembled the sorts of vending machines one would find at a seaside arcade.
Of course, most coin-operated machines delivered less virtuous benefits to their users. Gumball machines, for example, had been around since the Victorian Era, dispensing 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 were thought of as “silent salesmen,” working 24 hours a day.
Gumball machines made in the 1920s and ’30s were usually built of steel or finished with porcelain enamel over cast iron, giving the device a durable and attractive appearance, o...
A particularly collectible machine of that era is the boxy globe-less Ro-bo machine. 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 down a chute.
During Prohibition, gambling was banned along with alcohol. You might be surprised to know that some gumball machines were disposed of at this time, since they were considered a form a 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.
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 by their front doors, branded Ford, Northwestern ’60, Toy ’n Joy, Victor, or Oak Acorn. The last of these, Oak Acorn machines, are still made in designs true to the original by Oak Manufacturing Co. For beginners, postwar machines are the easiest to start collecting.
Early jukeboxes grew out of the first coin-operated phonograph, which made its debut at the Palais Royale in San Francisco in 1889. It featured a coin slot that activated an Edison Class M Electric Phonograph. There were no speakers (customers held a tube to their ears) but despite this limitation, the contraption earned its entrepreneurs $1,000 in just six months, one nickel at a time.
The first electric jukebox arrived in 1927, when the Automatic Music Instrument Corporation (AMI) introduced the “automatic phonograph,” as the devices were then called. During Prohibition, no self-respecting speakeasy would be without one.
After Prohibition, sales initially soared, but jukebox manufacturers had created a problem for themselves—their machines were too well built and the technology was not changing rapidly enough to justify their replacement. One company, Wurlitzer, tackled this dilemma by offering healthy trade-in credits to customers. Once an old model was turned in, it was destroyed, creating the scarcity that has made some of these early jukeboxes so valuable.
Seeburg was another early manufacturer. In 1935, it hired designer Nils Miller, who incorporated new, moldable phenolic resins into Seeburg’s Art Deco era machines. Not to be outdone, Wurlitzer also created a string of eye-catching models. In 1939, its round-cornered, wood-and-metal trimmed Model 600 was the most popular jukebox in the U.S.
Another important player in the pre-war era was David Rockola, who started Rock-Ola, the only surviving independent manufacturer today. The Rock-Ola machines of the postwar era, particularly the MAGIC GLO boxes with their wooden grilles, molded plastic pilasters, and gleaming chrome, are some of the handsomest ever made, although fans of the iconic Wurlitzer Model 1015 would probably have something to say about that.
A close cousin to the jukebox is the pinball machine. Throughout much of the 20th century, Bally, Gottlieb, and Williams were the big-three companies, and their pinball machines were the precursors of today’s arcade video games, from Atari’s Pong to Nintendo’s Donkey Kong.
Gottlieb was founded in Chicago in 1927. One of its first tabletop pinball machines from 1931 was called Baffle Ball, which gave players a half-dozen-or-so chances to get a ball into a hole for just a penny. A Williams game from 1952 called Horsefeathers allowed two people to play side-by-side. As for Bally, its Caperville game from 1966 featured stylized spies in an underwater world of stylized heroes and heroines.
Finally for those who wanted to get even more for their coin than music or a few minutes of pinball glory, there were slot machines. The first nickel slot was created in 1893 by an inventor named Gustav Schultze, whose Horseshoes game paid two nickels if the wheel landed on one of ten horseshoes—customers got a free drink if they landed on a joker; the remaining 14 out of 25 symbols were worth nothing.
Almost from the beginning, cash payouts were banned, so manufacturers started engineering their machines to pay customers in trade checks, which could then be redeemed. That practice was also outlawed in 1902. Curiously, around the same time, a specialized type of slot machine known as a "trade stimulator" escaped regulation. These machines paid out in cigars: Not coincidentally, a San Francisco police commissioner named Moses Gunst owned a chain of cigar stores and had a silent interest in Reliance, which made many of these so-called cigar machines.
The 1930s were for slot machines because that was the decade Bally was formed. When it was founded in 1931, Bally began by making amusement games such as pinball machines. In a foreshadowing of things to come, though, in 1938 Bally devised the Double Bell, which allowed a customer to play a nickel slot on one side and a quarter on the other.
After World War II, slot-machine manufacturers shifted their attention to the emerging market in Nevada. Gambling had been legalized there on a county-by-county basis in 1931, but things took off after changes in tax and license laws were passed in 1945. Virginia Street in Reno and Fremont Street in Las Vegas quickly became gambling centers, and manufacturers rushed to create machines for this new market.
Jennings had the first postwar slot in 1945, the Bronze Chief, and its Super Deluxe Club Chief from 1946 was the first illuminated machine. Mills High Top nickel slots were fixtures in many a casino, as was the Mills Black Gold. By the 1960s, upstart Bally began to take over the business, thanks in no small part to its Money Honey in 1963 (it could pay out hundreds of coins rather than just 20 or so) and the model 809 from 1967, which allowed customers to play up to five coins at once.