Vintage (or antique) slot machines are some of the most sought after collector items in present day America. There is something extremely enticing about owning something representative of such a glorious era in American history. Gambling has never gone out of fashion and players can visit one of thousands of casinos across the USA to play at slot machines. However, nothing can beat the nostalgia of playing at a slot machine that brings with it images of yesteryear America.
To better understand the era that marked the popularity of slot machines, and to understand why they are so collectible, we need to look at how they fit into the time period of 1890 – 1951.
The History of Vintage Slot Machines in the USA
Most experts classify vintage slot machines as any machine dating pre-1950s; however some say that anything before the 1970s is considered vintage. What typifies the pre-1950s slots is the fact that they have no lighted or plastic fronts. Most of them are made of metal and wood, using no electronics whatsoever.
Poker machines existed as early as 1890 and were extremely popular in saloons and cigar stores. In deference to the law of the times, most of these machines dispensed tokens for candy, gum and cigars instead of cash winnings. These poker machines enjoyed immense popularity until the First World War.
Most of the machines of the time and in the years following the turn of the century were made by a handful of companies. Machines made by Mills Novelty, the Caille Brothers, Watling Manufacturing of Chicago and Jennings were the first available, and are considered the basis of present day slot machines.
In 1897, Charles Fey, a German-born immigrant to the USA, produced the “Liberty Bell” which was a three-reel, automatic cash payout slot machine. Fey substituted the typical playing cards that were used in poker machines, with symbols that included suit symbols, horseshoes and… liberty bells. The “Liberty Bell” was the first slot machine to accept nickels and trade checks. Fey went on to produce three of the most popular slot machines in US history – the three-reel slot, draw poker and the dollar slot. Other companies soon jumped onto the bandwagon and started producing novelty slot machines at a remarkable pace, breaking Fey’s monopoly on the three-reel bell slot.
Between 1900 and 1909, slot machines were all the rage. However, this all came to a grinding halt when gaming machines were outlawed in San Francisco. Two years later, Nevada joined in the ban and by 1911, there existed a ban on slot machines throughout the entire state of California. Not to be deterred by the law, many companies simply changed their vending machines to dispense gum instead of nickels and placed them in regular gambling retreats.
From 1919, the year of Prohibition, slot machines soared in popularity yet again. These were the Roaring Twenties – years of decadence, wealth and a couldn’t-care-less attitude. Because of the prosperity of the times, nickel slots soon became dime and quarters slots, even moving up to half dollars. This Golden Age of gambling continued even after Prohibition ended in 1933, and even the Great Depression did not severely impact the industry.
Many companies turned to originality during the Depression years to try and keep their businesses going. Some of the most entertaining slot machines were developed during this time period, including the “Midget Derby” – a cash payout horse race slot machine and the “Scale and Strength Testers” (produced by Fey’s). Another first by Fey’s was the “Silver Dollar” slot, which was the first machine to accept dollar coins.
Prior to the twenties, most machines were produced from cast iron and wood. However, in 1923, aluminum replaced wood and candy replaced the traditional gum in the dispensing machines. During WWII, most companies stopped manufacturing slot machines and most old machines were melted down to create weapons instead. However, after the war, many existing models were remodeled and updated and slot machine popularity was on the upswing once again.
The slots industry took a severe blow in 1951 when Lyndon Johnson passed an act that prohibited the shipping of slot machines from state to state, except in states where slots were already legal. Suddenly, slot machine gambling became illegal in the entire United States, except for Nevada, Idaho and Maryland – severely curtailing the market for many of the great manufacturing companies of the time.
Collecting Slot Machines
Whether it is because slots are 100% American in origin or whether they enjoyed a relatively brief but glorious time in American history, slot machines are extremely sought after collector’s items. A quick search on the internet will reveal hundreds of companies who are keen to buy and sell vintage slot machines. eBay is also a good place to try, although buyers should be wary of fraud.
Many antique machines are turning up in places where they were locked up since the 1951 ban. Old, dusty but nevertheless in their entire splendor, these machines are considered the most popular among collectors. Original and authentically restored slot machines are difficult to find but they are available at some of the more reputable slot merchants in the USA.
Buyers should check out a company’s reputation in the industry and beware of reproductions or ‘remanufactured’ machines. In collectors’ circles, machines made by Mills and Jennings are considered to be the most reliable.
Collectors who are keen to find out the value of a machine in their possession could try many of the buyer and seller sites on the internet. Some sites, such as oldslotsmachine.com will – for a fee – positively identify the maker, factory name, market name and year of manufacture of the slot machine, and even include a short history.
The Legalities of Collecting Vintage Slots
Almost every state in the US has its own laws governing the ownership of slot machines. In some states, owning a slot machine is outright illegal, while others allow ownership as long as the machine is of a certain age. In Florida, for example, you can only possess a slot machine that is at least 20 years old, with newer slots being illegal. In New York, on the other hand, you may only own a vintage slot that was manufactured before 1941. Nevada, of course, takes its approach to the other extreme and allows residents to own a slot machine of any manufactured year – vintage or otherwise.
Before purchasing vintage slot machines, gamblers are encouraged to check the laws of their state or check up useful websites such as: http://www.gambling-law-us.com
A Word about British Vintage Slot Machines
Across the ocean during the 20s, 30s and 40s, British citizens were enjoying slot machines in penny arcades. While American vintage slots were more gambling oriented, the British chose to coin their slots as ‘entertainment’ machines. Players were attracted to these machines more for the thrill of winning additional pennies to feed the machines, and less for the idea of getting rich. As British law (up until 1960) dictated that slot machines had to have an element of skill to pay out a reward, most vintage machines found in the UK incorporated ball games, shooting games, etc. Non-payout games were also an option, such as fortune telling machines and jukeboxes. British slot machines are also considered highly collectible, with some sellers dealing with both UK and American vintage machines.
Spanning from the age of exciting Wild West saloons, through the Roaring Twenties, Depression years and the Second World War, the history of slot machines in the country represents more than just a chapter in our history books. Collectors of these items swear that vintage slot machines seem to bring the era alive through their solid facades, brightly colored reels and excellent workmanship. Owning an antique slot machine is like owning a tiny piece of long gone years, which explains the huge popularity in trade and collection of these items.