COIN OP COLLECTABLES
By Russ Jensen
In this day and age a term we hear more and more is "collectable". What is a collectable? It can be almost anything; that is, anything that a human being decides he or she wishes to accumulate for some form of personal pleasure. A collectable can be as large as an automobile or as small as a button, or even, believe it or not, a piece of barbed wire!
You can't have collectables, however, without one important adjunct, the "collector"! A collector can be almost anyone from a small child to a famous personality or multi-millionaire. All collectors have one thing in common, an almost overwhelming desire to acquire their own personally chosen collectable. At this point a distinction should be made between a "true collector" and the "speculator" or "hoarder". The true collector collects things because of the personal enjoyment he gets from his hobby. He also generally enjoys sharing his collection with others and loves to discuss his hobby with anyone he can. The hoarder or speculator, on the other hand, collects only in the hope of monetary gain, or in the case of some hoarders, the selfish act of pure possession.
Collectables indeed come in all shapes and sizes. Most people are aware of the common collectables such as stamps and coins and even automobiles, but few really know the vast number of diverse items which people collect. Only a visit to a large collectables show can give one an insight into the vastness of the collectable scene.
In the past decade or so many people have become interested in "coin operated devices" as collectables and the number of "coin-op" collectors is growing. Coin machines also come in all shapes and sizes, from small counter top vending and game devices to large mechanical orchestra machines. Almost all varieties of coin-ops are collected by someone or other.
Probably the most widely collected coin operated device is the 'slot machine'. This category includes the familiar "one armed bandit" type machine (referred to by most collectors as 'bell machines') and the Turn of the Century "upright" or "color wheel" machine.
Not too many years ago even owning such a machine was a crime in almost every state, although this did not stop the avid collectors who were forced to operate "under cover" to carry out their fascinating hobby. Then, spurred on by a police confiscation of some rare machines being restored by a Los Angeles area collector, a move was taken to amend the California Penal Code to allow collectors to own "antique" slot machines. After considerable work by "friendly" legislators, greatly aided by California slot collectors, this finally came to pass and after 1978 the owning by collectors of slot machines manufactured prior to 1941 became legal, provided of course, that they were not used for gambling.
This began the era of antique slot machine legislation. With California as an example, one by one other states started to pass similar legislation as local legislators were prodded by their slot collectors. Some states followed California's "pre 1941" definition of "antique slot machines". Others used a more realistic definition of "25 years or older". Today, approximately ten years after California was "made legal", 28 states allow collecting of antique slot machines, four have "unclear laws" regarding them, three allow only "trade stimulators" (more about these shortly), and only 15 states still ban them, but their number will probably decrease in the future.
Somewhat akin to the slot machine is the so called "trade stimulator". These are counter top games, often almost identical to a slot machine, with one important difference, they do not automatically dispense cash prizes when a player "wins". These games come in many forms and were generally used by small merchants to promote sales or attract customers (hence the name "trade stimulator").
A person would use a coin to operate the machine with the knowledge that if he did not 'win' he would still receive some item of merchandise (often a gum ball) worth the value of that coin. On the other hand, if he 'won' the merchant would give him some item or items of merchandise of a greater value. A common type of trade stimulator was in the form of a small "wheel of fortune". These were often used in cigar stores. The player would spin the wheel (usually by inserting a coin) and when it stopped it would indicate the number of cigars he would receive, more often one but occasionally more. This helped the cigar store's business as many people would buy a cigar (by playing the game) hoping to win additional ones.
Because of the wide variety of these games, and their often novel game ideas, these machines are highly collectable and have many avid collectors.
Certainly one of the very popular coin-op collectables these days is the Jukebox. These once familiar items seem to be slowly fading from the American scene. The "golden age" of the Jukebox (at least as far as esthetics is concerned) was the late Thirties and Forties. During this period extensive use was made of brightly colored plastics and lighting employing changing colors. Many Jukebox cabinet designs of that period were truly "works of art".
Of all the various brands of Jukeboxes Wurlitzer seems to be the most collectable. This is probably due to the innovative cabinet designs (of wood and plastic) of that company's chief designer during the "golden age", Mr. Paul Fuller. During the period from 1941 through 1950 he designed more than half a dozen models most of which have become real "classics." One of his impressive designs was the model 850, known as the "Peacock" because it had a large colored lighted panel portraying that bird.
Probably the most collectable Jukebox is the Wurlitzer model 1015, also designed by Mr. Fuller. This machine is the Jukebox that is very likely familiar to the average person as it is used today in many television commercials, movies, and even depicted on TV cartoon shows. If a person wanted to buy just one classic Jukebox this is the one he would probably buy, provided he could afford its whopping price tag. It is characterized by its rounded top, revolving "color wheels" and "bubble tubes." A Jukebox collection is really not considered complete without a Wurlitzer 1015.
Even though Wurlitzers from the "golden age" appear to be the most collectable Jukeboxes, those from other manufacturers and time periods are also sought by many collectors. During the golden age other manufacturers, such as Seeburg and Rockola also made some quite attractive models. The Rockola 1422/1426 series is in fact probably the second most familiar 78 RPM Jukebox to the average person due to its appearances in TV shows and motion pictures. Some collectors like the models of the early Thirties which were the "pioneer" Jukeboxes. Other collectors enjoy the early 45 RPM machines made in the Fifties and Sixties.
Here again Wurlitzer probably leads the "collectability list" because of its innovative and attractive designs, but Seeburg is not far behind. It should finally be noted that collecting Jukeboxes not only appeals aesthetically, but has the added excitement of being able to listen to music with the same sound it had to people of its time. MECHANICAL MUSIC
The forerunners of the Jukebox were the various forms of coin operated mechanical musical instruments. The earliest of these were large music boxes made around the Turn of the Century and fitted with a coin mechanism to allow people to hear music by the insertion of a coin. Next came coin operated "player pianos" which were similar to the popular home models except they were powered by electric motors (instead of foot power, as in the case of most home players), and the user could not change the music roll which determined what song would be played. Generally, these machines used music rolls, each containing 10 tunes, with the next tune in sequence being played each time a coin was inserted.
Collectors of these machines have come to refer to them as "nickelodeons." This term was not used for these devices during their heyday, however, they were simply called "coin pianos." The term "nickelodeon" was used in those days to refer to a silent movie theater which charged a nickle admission. The use of that term to refer to coin operated pianos originated with the lyrics of a popular song of the Fifties, "Music, Music, Music." The term has also been used in the past as a nickname for the Jukebox. Incidentally, two of the famous Jukebox manufacturers, J.P. Seeburg, and Rudolph Wurlitzer, got their starts, around the Turn of the Century, manufacturing coin operated pianos.
A larger 'cousin' of the "nickelodeon" was the so called "orchestrion." These were basically coin operated machines containing a piano and several other additional mechanized instruments such as pipes (some producing violin or flute sounds), xylophones, drums, cymbals, and other "percussion" devices. These machines were often used in dance halls in the early 1900's in lieu of an orchestra. Today they are quite valuable collectors items demanding high prices for most models in reasonable condition.
In addition the these piano based instruments, coin-op versions of other musical instruments were produced in the early part of this century. Two of the most noteworthy were the "Violono Virtuoso", a coin operated automatic violin player produced by the Mills Novelty Co., and the "Encore Automatic Banjo" by the American Automusic Co. All in all, coin operated musical instruments come in many varieties and have an avid core of collectors.
Another class of coin machine collectables are the types of coin-ops referred to as "arcade machines." These machines were made strictly to provide entertainment and amusement and were found in the "penny arcades" which flourished from around the Turn of the Century until recent times, although the "video arcade" of today is actually a modernized version of this type of establishment.
Arcade machines can generally be divided into three major classes, "fortune tellers", "peep shows", and "games." the former class includes machines which give your "horoscope", tell your "fortune", or supposedly tell a person something about his or her "personality." Probably the most familiar of these types of machines is the "granny fortune teller" which consists of a large cabinet, the upper half of which contains a replica of the head and upper half of the body of an old woman ( a "fortune teller"). When a coin is inserted a printed card is dispensed containing your fortune. This is often accompanied by a mechanized movement of the mechanical woman's arms.
Also included in this first class are the "personality meters" and "love testers." When a coin is inserted in one of these small machines a lighted panel on the front of the machine will indicate your "personality type" ("shy", "vivacious", etc) or your "love rating" ("romeo", "clod", etc) usually in quite comical terms. Somewhat akin to these machines are the "strength testers" in which, after the deposit of a coin, a person squeezes some handle grips as hard as he can and a dial registers his "strength rating."
"Peep shows" were machines, especially popular in the early 1900's, which, for the depositing of a coin, allowed a person to view either a very short motion picture or a still view. The pictures were usually billed as being somewhat "racy" but mostly this was a "come on" and what the person actually saw was usually quite mild.
The "game type" arcade machines usually simulated a popular sport or had a gun shooting theme. "Baseball" machines were quite popular and generally resembled a "pinball machine" except that in many models each ball was "pitched" (usually released onto the playfield via a "ramp" from underneath) and "batted" by a mechanical bat controlled by the player pressing a button. Most Of these machines had "animation units" which simulated players running the bases. Other sports simulated by arcade machines included football, basketball, and hockey.
Other popular game type arcade machines allowed the player to simulate shooting some type of a gun. The "rifle gallery" machines, popular since the late 1940's, allowed a player to simulate shooting a rifle at "targets" behind a glass, thus emulating the popular carnival shooting galleries. Similar machines using pistols were also made. There were also many games made where the player shot down aircraft with a "machine gun" (especially popular during World War II) and also "submarine" and other similar games with war themes.
Of the myriad of types of coin operated vending machines which have appeared over the years, only one general type appears to have caught on with collectors. These are the machines that dispensed chewing gum or peanuts. Most of the collectable machines of this type were manufactured between 1910 and 1950, with the 1920's accounting for many of the popular models.
These machines came in a variety of shapes and configurations. What seem to be the most collectable are those that dispensed ball gum or peanuts. Most, if not all, of the machines of this type had containers for the merchandise which allowed viewing, either using a glass "globe" (often of a rather attractive shape) or a square glass sided compartment. Other collectable gum venders, such as the popular "Chicklets" machines, dispensed wrapped sticks of gum.
While some collectors may collect other types of vending machines, the gum and peanut machines certainly seem to be the most widely collected.
Another type of coin machine which is collected with enthusiasm by many these days is the pinball machine. Most people are familiar with these games as they have been around for over 50 years, and many may wonder how anyone can collect something that large. This, however, does not seem to bother the pinball collector. Many people today also collect automatic musical instruments and pianos are larger than pinballs!
Pingames over the years have come in many sizes and technical complexities. Some collectors prefer the early machines (made in the early Thirties) which were strictly mechanical, some very simple and others with extremely clever mechanisms.
The introduction of electricity to pinball came in 1934 when young designer Harry Williams used dry cell batteries to power a simple electric ball kicker in a game called CONTACT. Within the next several years the use of electricity (first from batteries, then "house current") in pinball increased. By 1941 pinballs had brightly lighted backboards, lighted bumpers on the playfield, and had evolved into one of the technical wonders of the day using advanced electro-mechanical techniques.
World War II severely curtailed pinball production, but when it ended manufacturers resumed where they had left off. Then, late in 1947, came a startling new innovation. The "flipper", a player controlled bat-like device which could alter the course of the ball being played, was introduced by D. Gottlieb and Co. on a game called HUMPTY DUMPTY. Within 3 or 4 months all new pinball games had flippers. A little over a year later "pop bumpers" (bumpers which could forcibly repel a ball when it struck them) were added, making an exciting action game out of pinball. This led to the fascinating colorful games of the 1950's (pinball's "golden age"). Many collectors today seek these flipper games of the golden age, yet others prefer the earlier flipperless models.
Pinballs in the Sixties and Seventies became more modern in appearance, but many games, especially those from the early Sixties, had fascinating and challenging play features which make those machines highly desirable to many collectors. In the later part of the Seventies pinball started going "solid state" - using computer circuitry in place of the traditional electro-mechanical components. While many collectors today believe that only electro-mechanical games are collectable, a few are starting to add some outstanding electronic machines to their collections. As electro- mechanicals become harder to get, and solid-state games become older, I am sure that collectors will start looking for electronic pins to add to their collections.
What about the new kid on the coin-op block, the video game? Have people started collecting these relatively new machines? I am sure there are a few people who have either started collecting videos, or have added one or two to their collections of other coin-op devices. I believe, however, that more and more people will start collecting these machines as time goes on. Examples of videos which I consider collectors items at the present time would be such games as PONG (the first commercially successful coin-op video game), SPACE INVADERS (the game that started the first "video craze"), ASTEROIDS, and of course PAC-MAN.
PAC-MAN is especially significant as not only did it spawn a family of games (MS. PAC-MAN, BABY PAC-MAN, etc), but it also gave the world "PAC-MAN fever". PAC-MAN products sprung up all over, including such diverse items as a breakfast cereal and a room deodorizer. A multitude of such products abounded, and they themselves represent a class of collectable, although not coin- operated.
We have now briefly discussed each of the major classes of coin- operated devices which are being collected today. Most collectors specialize in one type of device, but often a collector may have one or more items of another kind in his collection. A future article will deal with the "support system" which aids coin-op collectors. This includes such things as books, magazines, shows and auctions, dealers, organizations, etc. Additional articles will describe the collecting of a given class of coin-op collectables in detail. As you can plainly see, the field of collecting coin-operated devices is extremely varied and there is some type of coin-op device to appeal to almost anybody.
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