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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.Type your paragraph here.

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 1891 and against the backdrop of the town of Brooklyn, in the  recently-booming east coast New York City, Sittman and Pitt had just  developed the gaming machine that in the years to come would be  considered THE precursor to the modern slot machine. Based on poker,  possibly to cash-in on the popularity of the game, the machine contained  five drums carrying a total of fifty cards and like it’s namesake in  the table-sitting world, it proved to be a popular hit with gambling  players everywhere but especially in it’s home city of New York. At this  time you would be hard-pressed to find a bar in the city that didn’t  have at least one of these machines standing at the side of the bar  waiting for potential players to insert a nickel and press the lever in  the hope of a good poker hand. These machines had a drawback. There was  no direct payout mechanism, so in order to cure this problem,  establishments would for example, offer a patron a free beer should he  receive a pair of Kings, maybe a cigar if he hit a lower hand. It was  not ‘made’ easy for a customer to win. Once obtaining a machine, many  establishments would typically remove two select cards from the deck:  the Ten of Spades and the Jack of Hearts. This, naturally, cut the odds  of winning drastically and to make it even more difficult to win, the  drums themselves could also be re-arranged to the taste of the  proprietor.

What can not be re-arranged so simply however, is the  differing accounts of a German immigrant named Charles Augustus Fey,  and his invention over on the west coast. There are some who say he  invented the first mechanical slot machine in 1887, four years BEFORE  Sittman and Pitt’s machine hit the bars of New York. There are others  who state that Fey conceived his innovation in 1895, four years AFTER  Sittman and Pitt’s machine. It is the year 1895 however, that seems to  prove more popular with gambling history enthusiasts. Regardless of the  chronology, Fey’s invention was revolutionary.

With what later  would be termed the first “one-armed bandit,” Fey had solved the problem  of designing a machine capable of making an automatic pay-out for all  possible winning combinations. This was achieved by replacing ten cards  with five symbols ( Diamonds, Hearts, Horseshoes, Spades and a cracked  Liberty Bell ), and utilizing three reels instead of five drums thereby  considerably reducing the complexity of reading a win! Three bells in a  row equaled the largest payoff, amounting to fifty cents or ten nickels.  The machine, consequently called Liberty Bell due to it’s attractive  symbol became a massive success and is generally credited with spawning  the massive mechanical gaming device industry at this time.

During  the next five years Charles Fey also invented the first descendent of  the Liberty Bell called “4-11-44″ named so after the maximum winning  combination of the machine, worth five dollars. After this success, Fey  upgraded his business from small-shop trading to factory production and  in successive years invented the “Card Bell” machine and then further  improved it a year later in 1899. This latest innovation had an altered  symbol ( Star ) and boasted a maximum prize of twenty dimes or tokens,  achieved with a three bell combination!

Fey had been enjoying  limited competition and favorable government legislature in his bid to  dominate the gaming device market. However, various companies including  Kalamazoo and Monarch had also released slot machines and one company in  particular would severely test his control. Again, there are  conflicting theories as to what actually happened but it was well-known  in gaming device circles around the turn of the century that Charles Fey  refused to sell or lease his revolutionary Liberty Bell slot machine to  anyone. One theory as it that in 1905, a robbery occurred at a saloon  in San Francisco, a theft in which only two items were stolen – an apron  and a Liberty Bell slot machine. Less than a year later, Herbert  Stephen Mills who had inherited the ‘Mills Novelty Company’ some years  earlier from his father Mortimer Mills, produced a new version of the  Liberty Bell called the Mills Liberty Bell. Despite the competition, the  Mills Liberty Bell saw off all challengers. Mills, at this point, was  employing assembly-line techniques for the construction of slot machines  and despite the controversy, later became known as the “Henry Ford of  slot machines.” The other theory however states that Charles Fey  actually went into business with the Mills Novelty Company, and then  manufactured the Mills Liberty Bell which stunted all competition.

The  Mills Liberty Bell itself featured a cast iron case with a classic  Liberty Bell actually cast into the front of the machine. Originally the  machine had cast iron feet with toes, but this was scrapped in later  versions and they were replaced with ornate scrolled feet. Playing cards  ( the King, Queen and Jack ) were depicted on the machine’s reel  strips, and it also featured a bell that rung when a winning combination  was hit. This was later dropped for the Mills Liberty Bell, though this  concept would resurface many years later.

Charles Fey had not  only had to contend with these commercial losses, but he suffered most  heavily when his main slot-machine producing factory was almost utterly  destroyed in an earthquake. After this point, Fey faded into relative  obscurity and he died some years later in 1944. Herbert Mills’ company  however continued to thrive.


By  1910 slot machines could be found seemingly everywhere. The Mills  Novelty Company introduced slight variations to it’s Liberty Bell design  and named it the Operator Bell. The Operator Bell had a more fitting  neck coin entry and also featured fruit symbols unlike previous models.  The Mills Novelty Company was also now producing five different  variations of it’s Liberty Bell design at it’s factories, and by the  time World War One broke out, the company had expanded into Europe and  it’s factories were manufacturing up to 30,000 gaming machines.

The  age of the cast iron machines came to an abrupt end when Mills  introduced slot machines fashioned with cheaper wooden cabinets, and by  the early 1930’s the Mills Novelty Company made a number of changes to  it’s production line of slot machines that signaled another revolution  of the gaming industry.

The new wave of machines introduced a  double jackpot that allowed players the luxury of knowing that they  could win twice in quick succession. The machines were also designed to  be quieter and these 1930’s machines are now referred to as the “Silent  Bell(s).”

New cabinet designs were also released as part of this  new wave of slot machines and included such themes as the Lion Head, the  War Eagle, the Roman Head and finally in 1933, the Castle Front. The  War Eagle also boasted a new coin acceptor that displayed the coins  played moving successively across the top of the machine. In the case  that slugs were used to operate the machine, the operator would now be  able to see if such an object was being used. The new specification also  added additional movement. Herbert Mills passed away in 1929 at the age  of 57, leaving a vast fortune to his wife and eight children.

In  1909, the previously favorable laws were thrown out the window, and new  laws were introduced declaring that slot machines could no longer  dispense cash. Slot machine manufacturers and bar owners managed to cope  with these new laws by giving away free packs of gum and other prizes  for getting certain combinations of symbols on the machines. There is a  theory that this was the idea for the fruit and bar symbols present on  modern-day slot machines. The bars are said to represent the packs of  gum and the fruit symbols indicate the various kinds of candy that were  won. Another theory holds that an early slot machine rewarded it’s  players by awarding fruit-flavored chewing gums with the pictures of the  flavors depicted by the corresponding symbols on the reels. The popular  ‘cherry’ and ‘melon’ symbols are said to have derived from this  machine. According to this representation of events, the ‘BAR’ symbol  now common in slot machines was actually derived from an early logo of  the Bell-Fruit Gum Company.

In 1919, the American government  declared PROHIBITION and the consumption or supplying of alcohol was  made illegal. The slot machines which mainly populated bars and saloons,  were moved into the speakeasies that had been set up in light of the  recent changes in the law. Since the speakeasies were illegal anyway,  the managers figured they may as well go back to offering cash prizes on  the slot machines. Because of this, the popularity of slot machines  increased even more.

Despite the governmental pressure the gaming  industry continued to bloom and grow, especially in the state of Nevada  where gambling was legalized in 1931. Several companies sprung up to  take advantage of the situation, and they began to manufacture and sell  slot machines to the fledgling casinos in Nevada. The manufacture and  enjoyment of slot machines grew at an exponential rate well into the  1960’s.


The pinball machine  manufacturer, Bally, in 1964 began to produce a new slot machine named  Money Honey. This machine was powered by electricity, and also possessed  new sound effects as well as being classed as a multi coin machine. It  was also the first slot machine ever to have a hopper – the name for the  holder into which the coins get paid out. More innovations flowed from  the Bally business brains; they added games that had more reels, bigger  hoppers and more coins until 1970 when they produced a hopper large  enough to hold dollar coins which meant larger jackpots for the  consumers.

In 1978, Atlantic City legalized gambling, and by this  time Bally had cornered about 90% of the slot machine market. The  company continued to add reels, knowing this would decrease chances of  winning and so maximizing the size of a jackpot . In addition to  increasing the number of symbols on each reel with 25 eventually  becoming the maximum, they also raised the wagers so games could be  played at $5, $25 and even $100. Bally also hired a computer programmer  by the name of Inge Telnaus to increase the size of the jackpots without  losing profits for the company. Using a computer program, Telnaus  utilized a random number generator that cycled through the numbers on  imaginary reels he had made. A revolution had been realized in slot  machine gaming as Telnaus with these imaginary reels could radically  change the amounts that could be won. This random number generator has  ushered slot machines into a new age and opened up new markets with new  opportunities to be explored much like the Californian gold fields did  for the American populace over 150 years ago.