Got a nickel?
In the early 20th century, that's all it took to bring to life the vending machines, gambling devices and other coin-operated mechanical amusements in "For Amusement Only," an exhibition on view through October 10 at the Morris Museum in New Jersey. The institution and its displays offer a voyage through time, back to an era where fun seekers could pay a mere pittance to be entertained by now antiquated machines—and learn that coin operated (coin-op) devices have a long and rich history.
"Heron of Alexandria (200 BC) relayed a story of an automatic machine that dispensed holy water when a 5-drachma coin was inserted," said the Morris Museum's Jeremie Ryder, the Guinness Collection conservator, "And there are records of an amazing 2-player, automatic puppet game that pitted one player against the other in 18-century Germany."
While some machines offered a few minutes of music or entertainment in exchange for a coin, others delivered products such as postage stamps, tobacco, cigarettes, sweets and even hard-boiled eggs. CNBC takes a look at some of the more unusual displays at the institution.
— By Harriet Baskas, special to CNBC. Follow Road Warrior on Twitter at @CNBCtravel.
Posted 03 July 2016
In the late 1800 and early 1900s, coin-op machines began were finding their way into bars, saloons and shops, and coin-op arcades were popular destinations in many major cities. One of the most famous was "Automatic Vaudeville," which opened in New York City in 1903. It had 100 machines lining the first floor and on the second, another new form of entertainment then sweeping the nation: silent movies.
During their heyday, the cost of a floor-standing coin-op device such as the Hercules Grip Tester might have cost between $100 and $200. At even a nickel a play, however, a popular machine would likely pay for itself within a few months—with a clear profit after, said Morris' Jeremie Ryder "If a small shop owner couldn't afford to purchase a device, local distributors and/or route operators might supply a variety of machines to their location for a split of the device's revenue. A win-win for both parties."
Coin-operated devices offered businesses a way to increase sales with little effort. Once stocked, an automatic or "self-acting" machine required no staff or clerk time to make a sale.
And what clerk could compare to the Automatic Chicken, which clucked and dispensed (from its rear end) either an actual hardboiled egg, or an egg-shaped tin with candy or treats?
Machine manufacturers tried to adapt their machines in an effort to get around the many legislative controls and laws—especially on devices considered to be gaming or gambling machines. Yet it all depended on exactly how regulators defined the word 'gambling.'
A 'trade stimulator' that was a game of chance but did not incorporate or bring into play one's 'skill' in order to win a non-cash prize, was not considered gambling in a strict sense, Jeremie Ryder of the Morris Museum told CNBC. Meanwhile, "other devices that automatically dispensed something in return for the coin were effectively vending, and not a game of chance."
Automatic music machines were a natural fit for coin operations. "The public could hear those new, fabulous toe-tapping tunes anytime they wished: In arcades, theatre lobbies, cafes, ice cream parlors…and anywhere the public could easily be separated from their loose change," said the Morris Museum's Jeremie Ryder.
This early robot-like machine offered several melodies and had wooden cams to provide animation that allowed the musicians' heads to turn from side to side. Their arms would feign the playing of the musical instruments. A coin would buy about a minute-long performance.
In the early 20th century penny arcades might feature strength testers and fortune telling machines. The "Grandmother Predictions" (circa 1932) was among the assortment of gambling machines and automated musical instruments common in speakeasies.