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Automatic Pleasures by Nic Costa

Nic Costa’s classic Automatic Pleasures: The History of the Coin Op Machine is once again in print and as relevant as ever, considering the resurgence of pinball in bars and the popularity of a new Cupcake ATM on Lexington Avenue that had a line of people 12 to 15 deep on opening day. There’s also the nearly 10,000 slot machines at New York’s Aqueduct and Yonkers racetracks, a harbinger of many more to come with the legalization of casinos in New York State.

Gambling machines, the one armed bandit, penny arcades, fortunetelling machines, strength testers, shooting games, viewers, and vending and service machines are among the automatic entertainments covered in the book, which is illustrated with both black & white and color photos.

Did you know the first-ever vending machine was a coin-operated holy water dispenser invented by Hero of Alexandria nearly 2000 years ago? Costa writes that it wasn’t until the development of markets and a society based on paid labor that devices saving time were valued and produced in number.

The first coin freed patent was in 1857, for “A Self-Acting Machine for the Delivery of Postage and Receipt Stamps.” A penny inserted would automatically feed out a stamp from a roll. By the mid-1890s more than 1,000 patent applications for coin freed machines had been received by the U.K. Patent Office. Tellingly, many of the early machines could be used either as fortune tellers or games of chance. Games with automatic payouts of a cigar, a card or a token became increasingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1890s.

Automatic Pleasures by Nic Costa

In the U.K. in the first years of the 20th century, there was a spate of prosecutions against businesses, including saloons and shops, which had the automatic machines. The intent was to suppress “public corruption” and “juvenile depravity.” The enforcement of anti-gambling laws resulted in European manufacturers having to concentrate on games of skill with a low pay-out, which led to the later American domination of the world market.

Automatic Pleasures is enlivened by numerous excerpts from firsthand accounts of the era. Herbert Mills of Chicago’s Mills Novelty Company, once the world’s leading manufacturer of coin operated machines, writes about the Automatic Vaudeville or Penny Arcade business in the early 20th century:

The Penny Arcade has become a permanent institution as much as the theater, the opera, the circus, the concert, the lecture or the gymnasium, for it combines in a modified form of all of these and because it makes such universal appeal, particularly to the poorer classes, it is destined to grow constantly in popularity and size. Only about 10 per cent of the total population have an income of more than $1,200.00 per year, and therefore, the percentage of those who can afford a dollar for a concert ticket or two dollars for a theater ticket is very small. But everyone can patronize the Penny Vaudeville and afford ten cents for half an hours entertainment.

Automatic Pleasures: The History of The Coin Machine by Nic Costa, D’Aleman Publishing, 2013. Paperback, $32.42

Automatic Pleasures by Nic Costa

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Airstream The Silver RV “Goodbye New York” essays have become increasingly popular but the big question is where would you move? For this former carny kid, no one place will do. The nomadic life of a trailerite seems like an answer. Did you know that you can buy an Airstream for $8,000 to $80,000? From there, it’s a hop, skip and a jump to the next rest area on the Interstate, parking lot at Walmart, RV camp, trailer park, or a new life on the fair circuit.

All of this is preliminary to saying that Airstream: The Silver RV is the perfect gift for anyone who cherishes dreams of a life on the road. Author Tara Cox, the founding editor-in-chief of RVLiving Magazine, who hopes one day to own an Airstream of her own, has researched the history and lore of the vintage classic.

Airstream

Airstream founder Wally Byam and his wife Marion at the trailer factory. Photo via Airstream.com

Airstream founder Wally Byam’s first aluminum trailer –“The Airstream Clipper” named after the Pan Am Clipper–debuted in 1936 at a time when the onset of the Great Depression created a boom in the trailer industry. Over 400 trailer companies were competing for customers when just a few years earlier there were forty-eight, Cox says. The book’s selection of photos shows the evolution of the Airstream’s “Streamline Moderne” style, which has made it an enduring icon as well as a pop-culture phenom in recent years.

Airstream Motel

One of the Airstreams at Kate’s Lazy Desert Motel near Joshua Tree. Via LazyMeadow.com

One of several “glamping” destinations mentioned is Kate’s Lazy Desert Airstream Motel owned by Kate Pierson of the forever fabulous band the B-52s. Six vintage Airstreams were restored and decorated by artists Philip Maberry and Scott Walker, who owned the “funky little shack” featured in the B-52s’ “Love Shack” video.

The travel trailer of my carny childhood, which was not an Airstream but had an Art Deco look, was put in storage every year after Columbus Day on the Goshen fairgrounds in Connecticut. One of my earliest memories is tearfully waving goodbye to it till spring when we went back out on the road with the carnival. Perhaps I’ll find something like it if and when the time comes to retire from life in New York City. “Adventure is where you find it, any place, every place,” said Wally Byam, “except at home in the rocking chair.”

Airstream:The Silver RV by Tara Cox. Published by Shire Publications, 2013. Paperback, $9.95

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Party Poppers

Happy New Year! Champagne Party Poppers at Gristede’s. December 28, 2012. Photo © Tricia Vita

The sight of packages of champagne party poppers in the supermarket for New Year’s brought me back to my carnival childhood and an essay that I wrote in the 1980s. Originally published in the Boston Review, “The Land of Prizes” is from a work-in-progress titled “Memoirs of a Carny Kid.” Does anyone else remember the Clam Shell Flowers? Happy New Year!

When I was a carny kid, De Cicco’s of Boston was one of the great wholesale houses of the carnival world. They carried hundreds of Oriental novelties including every one of the little “prize-every-times” in my mother’s balloon dart store. Winners in the game could be counted upon to look at the label “Made in Japan” and say, “What a piece of junk!” But I disagreed. I thought the prizes were wonderful stuff, my own private stock of here-today, gone-tomorrow toys.

The De Cicco brothers sold things by the gross, like big-time egg farmers. They sold red, white and blue rosette fans to wave like Fourth of July flags every day of the carnival season, and Daredevil Sam, the parachute man, to launch into the air. They sold pirates’ eye patches and villains’ moustaches, policemen’s badges and sheriffs’ stars, and the straw fingertraps called “Chinese handcuffs.”

They sold enough musical instruments to start a parade of marching bands: bamboo flutes with two or three notes to toot; kazoos to hum a catchy tune into; tin crickets to click like castanets; and guitars and banjos with rubber band strings to strum. And they sold every kind of whistle under the summer sun: leather and paper crescents that, after soaking up every drop of saliva, would stick to the roof of my mouth and let me sing like a Swiss warbler; balloon whistles that I tried to blow up, mostly because the long, drawn-out whine that was heard when the air escaped from them was certain to make my mother say, “why don’t you go out and play on the midway?”; and rubber razzers, imported from Hong Kong, of which my mother would gaily say as she gave them away everywhere in New England,  “Here’s a Bronx cheer – Phuuuuu!”

While the grown-ups were busy buying ten gross of this and twelve gross of that, I had the run of the house. Up one wide aisle and down the next, over dusty wooden floors and along countertops level with my beguiled eyes, I’d browse among trinkets and trick toys that I’d never see anywhere else, not even in those Cape Cod souvenir shops where almost everything came from China and Japan. By the time my mother’s order was ready,  I’d have picked out a slew of things and asked one of the Mr. De Ciccos to write up a bill for me too.

He looked over what I’d chosen: a mailbox bank with its own lock and key, a deck of miniature playing cards, and a handful of polished clam shells sealed with flimsy strips of paper that said those three magic words—“Made in Japan.” I knew that if I placed one in a tall glass of water, then waited until I couldn’t wait longer and went away, I’d come back to find a pink paper flower floating up from the opened shell. I couldn’t say how long it took for this Japanese water lily to blossom: in all the years I bought packages of shells at De Cicco’s, I never saw it happen with my own eyes.

The shells remained as mysterious to me as the party poppers that I shot off like fireworks—Bing! Bang!—whenever there was a lull in carnival business. Town kids scrambled to catch the streamers, as colorful and curly as Christmas ribbons, before they fell softly to the ground. While the cardboard champagne bottle that they’d come in was still smoking, I pulled it apart, anxious to get at the little bits of foreign newspaper that were hidden inside. There were seldom more than two or three elaborately printed symbols on the singed strip of paper, but they had come all the way from the other side of the world and I studied them with deep curiosity. What did they say to me?

I wouldn’t find out until I grew up and traveled to Boston’s sister city—Kyoto, Japan.  There I deciphered my long-lost ideograms in a book called Read Japanese Today. And I practiced my Japanese conversation with coffeeshop acquaintances. In the beginning I couldn’t explain to them why I’d come or, after, why I stayed for more than three years. But now I can tell you: I had come to find a home in the land of prizes, where my heart first opened, as slowly and imperceptively as the clam shell in its glass of water.

Copyright © Tricia Vita

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