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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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'Smiley' Clown Skill Game,

1 Cent ‘Smiley’ Clown Skill Game. Victorian Casino Antique Auction, January 19-20, 2013

A plethora of vintage arcade games, slot machines and gambling paraphernalia will be on the auction block next weekend at Victorian Casino Antiques in Las Vegas. Online bidding is also available for the January 19-20 sale. Here are a trio of items that caught our fancy.

“Smiley” the Clown, the first post-World War II arcade game from Chicago’s Pioneer Coin Machine Company, has strong graphic appeal. In addition, it takes a lot of skill to win. Introduced in 1946, the game requires players to maneuver the ball through a circular maze.

Play Football Arcade Game

5 cent ‘Play Football’ Arcade Game, circa 1924. Victorian Casino Antique Auction, January 19-20, 2013

“Be a Champion. Learn ‘the Kicks’ in Football!” The Chester-Pollard Amusement Company’s 1924 “Play Football” was a popular and fun nickel arcade game for two players. The idea was to score a goal for your team by pushing the handle to make one of the little soccer players kick the steel ball.

Among the gambling equipment in the sale is this H.C. Evans Horse Race Wheel complete with odds changer. Chicago’s H.C. Evans and Company was the country’s leading manufacturer of carnival and casino equipment for six decades. Its top of the line wheels include the Big Six, the Jumbo Dice Wheel and the Horse Race Wheel. The wheel measures 60 inches in diameter and approximately 87 inches high.

H.C. Evans & Co. Horse Race Gambling Wheel

H.C. Evans & Co. Full Size Horse Race Gambling Wheel, Victorian Casino Antique Auction, January 19-20, 2013

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Target the Coney Island Arcade Cat on Patrol. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

Target the Coney Island Arcade Cat on Patrol. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

Don’t worry, Manny Cohen and Target the Cat, who operate the world-famous Coney Island Arcade at Bowery and 12th Street in the heart of Coney Island, aren’t going anywhere. They’ll be open for business in 2010. On Saturday, November 28, Coney Island Arcade is making way for new equipment by auctioning old coin-op arcade games, pinball machines and more. The list of items includes Ms Pac Man, Carnevil, Addams Family and Austin Powers Pinball Machines, and Kiddie Ride Horses similar to the one pictured above. You can’t buy this one because Target likes to lounge on the saddle!

Last summer, Cohen operated a second arcade on Surf Avenue near Jones Walk. The auction and preview will be held at that location. The auction is on Saturday, November 28 at 10 am. Preview on Black Friday, the first day of the traditional Christmas shopping season (hint, hint) 1-6 pm, and on Saturday 8-10 am prior to the auction. For more info visit the auction site.

If you go to Saturday’s auction, you’ll find the Coney Island Museum, the New York Aquarium, Coney Island Beach Shop, Nathan’s Famous, and other shops and restaurants open for business. You can also download the Coney Island History Project’s free audio/video walking tour to your iPod or listen to it live on your iPhone and go for a stroll on the Boardwalk.

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