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Thousands of Interesting Models Makes Early Slot Machines a Collecting Jackpot

by Wayne Jordan (12/17/12).

Charles Fey’s Liberty Bell machine came to market in 1895. With its instant cash payouts and bigger jackpots, Liberty Bell machines were soon found all over San Francisco: in bars, brothels, barbershops, restaurants, hotels and markets. (Photo: International Trade Museum)

No one should have that much fun in a mausoleum. But fun was the order of the day: the Elks were in town, holding their 1961 national convention in Miami Beach. Local Elks clubs opened their doors to out-of-state members and provided them with a variety of entertainment options. One such club was the politically well-connected Miami Elks Lodge #948; the club’s past Exalted Rulers included a State’s Attorney and a local Sheriff.

Conventions of any kind can get rowdy, and rumors of illegal slot machine gambling at the Elks Lodge reached Florida State Agents, who raided the lodge. They found nothing. The week following the raid a cemetery grounds man discovered four slot machines while inspecting a broken window in the mausoleum next to the Elks Lodge. The grounds man contacted the police; another raid was conducted and the machines were destroyed. No one knows—or won’t tell—how the slot machines came to be housed in the mausoleum.

Did the mausoleum slots come from the Elks Lodge? In an earlier incident, a former leader of Lodge 948 had been charged with possession of 14 illegal slot machines the day before he was installed as Exalted Ruler. It seems the Exalted One’s wife, who was suing him for divorce, turned him in to the authorities. The Elks proudly supported their elected (but potentially felonious) leader and installed him into office anyway.

None of the Elks were charged in the raid. The sheriff said it was a city problem, and the city looked the other way. It was politically popular at the time to be anti-gambling but local politicians played it fast and loose with the law. Miami Chief of Detectives, Oren Caudell, said of the Elks raid: “Finding slots on the property of an individual or organization is no proof of ownership.” Really? I suppose the maxim “possession is 9/10 of the law” didn’t apply in 1961 Miami.

In 1909, the Mills Novelty Co. of Chicago introduced its “Liberty Bell Gum Fruit” machine, providing players a pack of gum with each play. This brought the first images of fruit—lemons, oranges, cherries and plums—to the slot machine’s rotating wheels. (Photo: International Trade Museum)

In Miami, as in all Western culture, endorphin-producing activities like illicit drinking, gambling and sex have always existed side-by-side with moralistic factions seeking to ban such activities. In fact, when Charles Fey of San Francisco (arguably) invented the modern slot machine in 1895, most gambling was already illegal in California. But no serious effort was being made to enforce the laws. Enforcement efforts increased when Fey’s Liberty Bell machine came to market. With its instant cash payouts and bigger jackpots, Liberty Bell machines were soon found all over town: in bars, brothels, barbershops, restaurants, hotels and markets. The players loved them but the anti-gambling public was outraged: anyone (and everyone) with a nickel could gamble, no skill required. Nevertheless, it was another six years before the City Fathers gave in to political pressure and specifically outlawed slot machines. The tax revenue provided by the machines was just too hard for the government to give up.

The political cat-and-mouse contest of virtue verse vice has shaped the history of slot machines, and is responsible for the variety of machines that today’s collectors enjoy. Each law enacted to curtail slot machines resulted in manufacturers building a machine that would sidestep the law in order to remain legal.

“The difficulty in outlawing slot machines” says Steve Cohen, “was to define them in a way that would make enforcing the law possible.” Cohen, the owner of Jason’s Music Center in Pasadena, Md., has been a student of slot machine lore and a slot machine collector-restorer for the past 35 years. He explains further: “If a law defined a slot machine as a game of chance that put the player’s money at risk, then any machine that delivered some sort of non-monetary value (like a token redeemable for cash) in return for a player’s money was not technically a slot machine, and the law couldn’t touch it.” In some cases a player would purchase tokens, gamble with them, and redeem them for cash as they departed.

For decades, the most popular way to sidestep the law was to provide the sale of a pack of gum with each pull of the handle. The theory was that by providing gum, the machine qualified for a vending machine license. In 1909, the Mills Novelty Co. of Chicago introduced its “Liberty Bell Gum Fruit” machine, which added a chewing gum dispenser to the side of its own “Liberty Bell” model slot machine. To further disassociate this machine from gambling, the machine’s reels contained images of fruit: lemons, oranges, cherries and plums. When the handle was pulled and three of the same fruit lined up, a jackpot (in addition to the gum!) was earned. Never mind that the player rarely took the gum! Slot machines were developed that would sell everything from cigarettes to fortune telling. In every case, the value provided to the player was always significantly less than the amount of money played. A nickel played got you a penny’s worth of gum.

Some machines became “trade stimulators” that eliminated cash payouts and instead provided tokens redeemable in the host establishment’s merchandise. Winners could trade tokens for a free beer or cigar, but were just as likely to use them as cash. This one is from 1931. (Photo: International Trade Museum)

Slot machines became pervasive nationwide, and as their use increased so did the forces lined up against them. Manufacturers responded with more clever gimmicks to keep their machines legal. Some machines became “trade stimulators” that eliminated cash payouts and instead provided tokens redeemable in the host establishment’s merchandise. Winners could trade tokens for a free beer or cigar, but were just as likely to use them as cash. Other machines relied on the “skill” of the player to stop the reels from spinning, supposedly eliminating the element of chance (no chance element = no gambling).

When Prohibition was enacted in 1920, gambling and slot machines lost their prime real estate: the bars, hotels and restaurants that served alcohol. Like booze, slot machines went underground to the speakeasys and gambling dens. Soon, organized crime held a majority interest in gambling and slots as well as liquor. Riding on a wave of anti-crime indignation, gambling was outlawed in the 1920s in most jurisdictions in the United States. It wasn’t long, though, before the Great Depression drove municipalities to reconsider gambling as a source of revenue, and slots once again began to appear as a legal (but licensed and taxed) form of entertainment.

After the Second World War, the cat-and-mouse of defining slot machines and enforcing their use began again in earnest. Slot machines were ubiquitous, despite all the state and local laws prohibiting them. In 1950, a solution was presented to then-Congressman Lyndon Baines Johnson, who sponsored legislation that broke the back of illegal slot machine gambling in the United States. In his novel approach, it became illegal to transport any gambling device across state lines, unless such devices were legal in the destination state. Unlike all previous laws, the Johnson Act is a never-ending morass of definitions, sub-sections and exceptions, but its essence is that slot machines can’t be transported over state lines. This law essentially put slot machine manufacturers out of business.

A five-cent slot machine token, “good for 5¢ in trade.” (Photo: International Trade Museum)

In the 21st century, laws have lightened up considerably. Cash-strapped states and municipalities have rediscovered the wealth of revenue that lotteries, slots and gambling can provide. Collectors should be aware that existing laws do put some restrictions on owning slot machines, though. In five states, merely owning a slot machine can put you in jail. In 14 states, all machines are legal. In other states, machines of a certain age are legal to collect (age varies by state). Because ownership laws vary from state to state, selling slot machines online can be problematic. EBay has a very restrictive slot machine sales policy.

Like all collectibles, slot machines are valued based on quality, rarity, age and condition. Having been manufactured for more than 100 years, there are too many makes and models to offer any meaningful price guidelines to collectors in this short article. However, there are some excellent resources available.

Cohen recommends “Reel History” by David N. Mead as a must-have book for collectors. Mead Publishing in Las Vegas has an excellent selection of repair manuals, picture guides, and slot machine histories, collector’s guides, and a listing of legal states. Values on some models can be seen at Antique Slot Machines Price Guide.

Slot machines are entwined with 20th-century American history, and for that reason alone collecting them is a rewarding hobby. For the mechanically inclined, there is the added pleasure of restoring the old machines to working order. Plus, let’s not forget how much fun they could be at a party… provided the party is not held in a mausoleum!

For a good video tour of the history of Charles Fey’s inventions by grandson, check out this video. Start it around the 5:40 mark to avoid a lot of commercials.

Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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