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Collecting Antique Slot Machines

Have you ever wanted to own an antique slot machine?

    You might be interested to know that there are an estimated 20,000 collectors of these antique mechanical wonders. And you may be surprised to learn that many states  have recognized the historical significance of antique slot and gambling machines and have passed laws enabling collectors to collect and enjoy them. 
    No one knows for sure how many slot machine collectors there are in the United States. At first glance, it would appear that there are no more than several thousand serious collectors. However, the number of families with game rooms who can afford a thousand dollars or more for a slot machine must be numbered in the tens or even hundreds of thousands.
    Folklore abounds in the history of slot machines. Slot machines are an American invention, and it is generally agreed that Charles Fey invented the first three-reel payout coin-operated gaming machine. Coin-operated gambling devices had been in existence earlier than 1895.

Slot Machine History

    During the late 19th century, the neighborhood saloon was at the peak of its popularity. Many a gentlemen's evening was spent in the company of good friends in one of these saloons. Saloonkeepers, and enterprising sort, noticed that the men spent a lot of time but relatively little money in their establishments. What was needed was something that the men could spend their money on besides whiskey, beer and cigars. The stage was set, and the first bar-mounted gambling device was created.
    The first coin-operated gambling machines were used in conjunction with the purchase of some penny or nickel item, such as a pack of gum or an inexpensive cigar. Instead of handing the merchant the money for the item, the customer put a somewhat lesser amount into a machine. Either the weight of the coin or some sort of spring-wound mechanism caused a numbered or colored wheel to revolve. If the wheel stopped on a pre-selected color, number or symbol, the customer got whatever he was buying. Thus trade stimulators came into being.
    It didn't take long however, for the players to decide that the need for the merchandise was secondary. Playing for actual money  seemed to make a lot more sense; hence, the coin-operated gambling machine was born.
    The earliest known cash payout type machine was the 3-for-1. The player put a coin into the top of the machine, and as it dropped through a maze of pins, it was routed into one of three different tracks. If it fell into the winning track, a three-coin payoff was automatically made. From this initial coin drop concept came an entire family of machines, most famous of which were the Mills CRICKET  and the Caille BULLFROG.
    The first machines with actual payoff mechanisms appeared about 1892. They were small wooden machines with a spinning disk. The player dropped the coin into the slot and pulled the handle. This action simultaneously energized a spring-wound timing mechanism and spun the wheel. As the timing mechanism unwound, it tripped a stopping mechanism and pay sensing device. If the wheel stopped on a winning symbol, the machine automatically paid coins, trade checks or tokens. These first slot machines finally evolved into what are now called single wheel floor or counter model machines. The major manufacturers of these machines were Mills, Caille, Paupa and Hochriem, Daniel H. Schaal, Berger, Watling, White and the Automatic Machine Company.

Charles Fey

    Charles Fey was born in Vohringen, Bavaria on February 2, 1862. He was the last of sixteen children born to Karl and Maria Fey. After spending five years as an apprentice to a maker of scientific instruments, he decided America would be the best place for him to fulfill his dream of success. It was in 1895 San Francisco that Charles invented his LIBERTY BELL, the backbone for today's three-reel slot machines. It is amazing that the mechanical workings  of this first slot machine remained noticeably unchanged throughout the lifetime of the mechanical slot machine, a period of over 50 years. The immediate success of the three-reel LIBERTY BELL caused it to be widely copied in the years to come.
    The single wheel counter and floor model machines seemed to be the predominating type of slot machine for many years, and several styles were actually manufactured through the early 1930's. The single wheel machines had predictable odds, since the entire wheel, much like a roulette wheel, was completely visible to the player. Most of these machines featured multiple coin heads, and a coin was bet on either a color or combination of colors or a number or a combination of numbers. If the wheel stopped on the color, number or any one of the numbers or colors, then the machine automatically paid off a pre-determined number of coins. There were also several early jackpot styles of single wheel slot machines.
    The early Fey three-reel slot machine eventually re-cased into several basic designs of cast iron cases. These were made by a number of manufacturers and were called OPERATOR BELLS or LIBERTY BELL machines. The LIBERTY BELL as a symbol has remained with the slot machine right up to today. The term "bell machine" was applied to all three-reel slot machines with bell-bar-fruit symbol reels.
    The early cast iron counter machines were very heavy and awkward and finally gave way to designs utilizing cast iron fronts and wooden sides with gooseneck-style coin entry heads. This happened in 1915 and it is a rule of thumb for dating cast iron three-reel machines. World War I certainly helped cause the switch to the woo-sided cabinet, which not only reduced weight, but cost of manufacturing. About 1920, cast iron gave way to cast aluminum. Very little else changed. For almost ten years, nothing of any great significance happened to the design of slot machines. Very little is know about slot machines between 1920 and 1928.
    However, in 1927 one of the biggest changes since the development of the slot machine occurred. The jackpot was introduced (actually it was reintroduced, since several early floor machines had jackpots) and caught the immediate attention of the player. This feature alone revitalized the entire slot machine industry. Where previously a player had nothing more than a 20-coin payoff to try for, the potential rewards now became much greater. The manufacturers even began to remanufacture jackpot fronts for their older gooseneck machines. The country was near depression, but the slot machine industry was entering its "golden age."

The Golden Age

    The period from 1921 to 1941 was the golden age of the slot machines. The machines of this era reached an aesthetic plateau that they would never again obtain. Ask any collector what his favorite old slot machines are, and at least one of them will probably be from this era. To further stimulate player appeal, features and gimmicks of all kinds were introduced. Skill stop buttons, mystery payoffs, gold awards, and special bonus jackpots are only a few of the features introduced.
    When World War II commenced, slot machine production came to an abrupt halt. Following the war. most manufacturers resumed production of most of the prewar models. Many of them introduced new models, but the golden age of slot machines was over.
    While electricity had been used in many early slot machines, the first popular electric gambling machine was the animated horserace PACES RACES of 1934. The use of electricity permitted the development of this unique machine which had outstanding player appeal. Several other manufacturers were quick to follow with BAKERS PACERS and EVANS RACES. Electricity made possible the console slot machine introduced in 1939 by the Mills Novelty Company. These kinds of slot machines offered a number of player options including multiple coin play, bonus features, hold and draw features and super jackpots. Bally Manufacturing Company, one of the leading slot machine manufacturers today, was the first company to design a successful countertop slot machine using electricity. Instead of spring-actuated fingers and mechanical payoff slides, the Bally machine had electric sensing contacts and high speed coin payout mechanisms.

Collecting Slot Machines

    Why do people today actively seek and collect slot machines? What is so intriguing about these old machines? If you talk to a dozen seasoned collectors, you will probably get a dozen different answers.
    Some collectors gain great satisfaction out of simply finding an old machine, and after a few months they put it up for sale. The thrill seems to be the hunt and successful "kill" or acquisition of the beast.
    For other collectors it is the thrill in purchasing the machine from another person, like buying a new toy.
    In states where the machines are illegal, the thrill for a collector could be the collecting and possession of an illegal item.
    For still others, owning a slot machine may simply be a status symbol.
    And, of course, there is always the fellow who simply wants a slot machine for his very own. He likes to play it, look at it, feel it, touch it - and then he plays it again; and when he has nothing better to do, he simply sits and stares at it! The latter group consists largely of non-collectors. They don't really know what the machine is worth, and they don't care. They don't care what kind or denomination it is, they simply know they want one, and so they buy it. They are the type of people who will pay several thousand dollars for a relatively common machine. Furthermore, they assume all slot machines are alike. In this particular hobby, this type of collector has a lot in his favor - it will only be a matter of time until the common machines will have more value.

Legal Aspects

    What about the legalities of antique slot machines? As a potential slot machine collector, the first thing you need to know is whether you reside in an illegal or legal state. This one fact will form the basis for you collection, if you intend to have a collection. The obvious answer is this: If you live in an illegal state, don't buy a slot machine. At present there are 43 Legal States For Slot Machines.

For The Beginner

    The beginning collector usually one slot machine, usually in a nickel denomination. He or she may or may not arrive home with a real collectible. Sooner or later, they will grow tired of just playing nickels will look for something to put their dimes and quarters into. Their idea of expansion is to get a machine of another denomination. At this time he or she will probably pass up a real collectible, like a Watling TREASURY that takes a nickel, and will probably be much happier with something like a 25 Jennings CHIEF. From that point, he or she will begin gathering all denominations of machines. The point is that they have now become hooked as a collector of slots and a collector of machines with specific coin denominations.
    The hobby of collecting antique slot machines has certainly established itself, as evidenced by the many stores that now sell slot machines, as well as publications that cater to the members of the hobby.
    So, if you dare, get involved! There is one advantage to collecting antique slot machines - they are one antique that won't gather dust. They don't have a chance - you'll keep them dusted off by playing with them. They are truly an antique that should be in every game room, especially if you are interested in gambling, gambling machines an gambling memorabilia.

Locating Antique Slot Machines

    You are probably wondering to yourself, "where can I find old machines"? There are a number of sources, but you may want to research the hobby a little more in depth. The book we recommend, Slot Machine Buyer's Handbook , deals with various aspects of collecting antique slot machines, such as: how and where to find the best buys, which casino style slots are best for home use, parts availability for various makes and models, a comparison of over 950 slot machines, and which  machines should be avoided.


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