Today there are thousands of slot machines in bars, casinos and clubs worldwide. But where and how did these machines originate? And at what point did they become such a beloved phenomenon for some and so controversial to others? A look at the history of these grown-up toys will help us understand the origin of all the fascination and fuss over antique slot machines.
Gambling has been a popular pastime of the thrill-seeking for thousands of years. The 6-sided die dates to about 3000 B.C. in Mesopotamia, and betting card games originated in China in the 9th century A.D. Poker, which has rumors of starting in Persia during the 17th century, became a favorite, and other gambling and lottery games evolved over time with new games spreading around the world. It is no surprise that these games became mechanized and even more widespread after the Industrial Revolution.
This Mill’s 777 Special Award Slot Machine features the iconic fruit reel strip that dates this to the “golden age” of slot machines. Circa 1950.
Late in the 19th century, Sittman and Pitt of Brooklyn, New York created a gambling machine that was a precursor to the modern slot machine we know and love today. Based on poker and without a cash payout, the player would insert a nickel and pull a lever to reveal the cards they were dealt. Depending on what the establishment would offer, a good hand could earn the player a free beer or a pack of cigars.
Charles Fey, a San Franciscan car mechanic, created the first gambling slot machine with automatic payout around 1890. Dubbed “The Liberty Bell,” it consisted of three spinning reels with hearts, diamonds, spades and a cracked Liberty Bell painted on each. A grand payoff of fifty cents came with a lucky spin of three Liberty Bells.
Fey continued to make slot machines, including the first draw poker machine. Later, he created the trade check separator — a hole that allowed a check for fake coins. Finding great success with his inventions, Fey was able to rent his machines to saloons with a 50/50 split on profits.
Fey was not able to make slot machines fast enough for the game's high demand. When they were banned in California after just a few years of manufacturing, he kept up with the increasing demand for them elsewhere. Also being produced by other makers, the slot machine’s popularity spanned across bars, saloons, and bowling alleys all across the United States.
An astonishing artifact of Americana, the “Dewey-Chicago Triplet” floor model slot machine is the only one of its kind known to exist today. Created by the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago, this remarkable machine is actually three slot machines in one oak case that play for a nickel, quarter and half-dollar amounts. Impeccably crafted and in superb working condition, this Mills slot machine is arguably the most important to ever come on the market.
With growing limitations, manufacturers developed techniques to avoid the new laws being placed on slot machines. Machines such as the Mills Dewey-Chicago Triplet not only operated as a game, but also included a cylinder music box that was activated when change was inserted. This musical feature essentially qualified the act of gambling through the machine as “buying a song,” excluding it from many limitations put into place at the time.
The era of the fruit machine commences when cash prizes could no longer be distributed legally. A machine called the Operator’s Bell displayed lemons, cherries, oranges, and plums and awarded the corresponding flavor of gum to the winner. Awarding food prizes was yet another technique used to maintain the slot machine’s popularity while still abiding by gambling laws. Fruit images such as these can still be seen in modern slot machines.
For 25 cents, each play of this golf ball vendor slot machine pays out in golf balls instead of cash. The facade is complete with its original glass display of two golfers on the green and golf balls you can potentially win. This piece is incredibly rare as such machines were only found in high-end golf resorts in the mid-20th century, and their production only took place during the year 1940.
Gambling laws became more liberal by the end of the 20th century, and casinos opened on many Native American reservations. At this time, most poker, gambling and slot machines experienced a boom in popularity. Many of these machines, however, went digital and left behind the charm and excitement of antique slot machines. Nonetheless, it is exciting to collect and experience what the earliest slot machines had to offer.
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