Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Trip to the Penny Arcade - Circa 1907

Today's post is a bit a departure. One of my favorite "video game" books is Dick Bueschel's Arcade 1.

In truth, it really isn't a video game book, though it does cover seven video games in its 300+ pages. It is the first of a planned five-volume series on the history of "arcade" machines (basically, any coin-operated amusement machines other than jukeboxes, pinball, slot machines, trade stimulators, or vending machines ). The volume was subtitled "Ancient Lands to Wonderlands: 3600 BP to 1905". To give you an idea of the depth of information in Bueschel's books, look at his Pinball 1, the first of a planned 10-volume series on pinball. While most histories of pinball start with Gottlieb's Baffle Ball, Pinball 1 has a 100-page history section that ENDS with Baffle Ball.

Arcade 1 has a 150-page history of arcade games, a price list, a game list, a section covering 100 games from all eras, and a bonus section. While it starts at 3600 BP, it really concentrates on the period from the 1880s to 1905. Sadly, Dick Buesehel passed away before completing any more volumes in either series.  

Anyway, on to the subject of today's post. The "bonus section" in Arcade 1 consists of a guide published around 1907 by the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago called "Mills Penny Arcades". It is a guide to operating a penny arcade (the heyday of the penny arcade was the 1902-1907 period).

Mills Novelty Company was one of the two leading producers of arcade machines of the era (the other was Caille Brothers of Detroit). They are probably best known for their slot machines (particularly the Owl introduced in 1897 and the Liberty Bell introduced in 1906).

The guide contains a list of suggested machines for various arcade setups. The most expensive setup (costing around $5,000) includes the following. I think this gives a nice picture of what a penny arcade would have been like circa 1907.  Notes about the various machine types follow:
·         24 Auto-Stereoscopes and 37 sets of 15 views each
·         8 Illustrated Song Machines with 1 set of 12 views and 1 record each, plus 8 extra sets of 12 views
·         5 Quartoscopes and 10 sets  of 4 dozen views
·         5 Automatic Phonographs with 1 record each plus 5 extra records
·         3 Illusion Machines
·         1 new Owl Lifting Machine
·         1 new Owl Dumbbell Lifting Machine
·         1 new Owl Flashlight Lifting Machine
·         1 new Owl Chimes Lifting Machine
·         1 Flashlight Grip Machine
·         1 Submarine Lung Tester
·         1 Rubber Neck Lung Tester
·         1 Hat Blower
·         1 Searchlight Grip and Lung Tester
·         1 Bag Punching Machine
·         1 Pneumatic Punching Machine
·         1 new Vertical Punching Machine
·         1 Sibille Fortune Teller plus 2,000 extra cards
·         1 large Horoscope Fortune Teller plus 2,000 extra cards
·         1 Conjurer Fortune Teller
·         1 pair Jumbo Success Fortune Teller (one for ladies, 1 for gentlemen)
·         1 Madame Neville Palmist with 1,000 letters plus 1,000 extra letters
·         1 Cupid Post Office with 1,000 letters plus 1,000 extra letters
·         1 Mills Perfect Weighing Machine
·         1 Large Electric Shock Machine
·         1 Doctor Vibrator
·         1 Lady Perfume Sprayer
·         1 24-Way Multiple Postal Card Machine with 2,000 cards plus 2,000 extra cards
·         1 Emblem Embossing Machine with 600 emblems plus 500 extra emblems
·         1 Windmill Candy Machine
·         1 Combination Money Counter for pennies
·         1 Automatic Pianola with 1 roll of music plus 2 extra rolls (4 pieces to the roll)
·         1 Cashier's Desk
·         1 Repair Outfit
·         1 Key Board with lock
·         48 Key Rings
·         96 Key Tags
·         36 Coin Bags
·         100 Perforated brass 1c brass slugs
·         50 Weekly Statement Sheets
·         Various signs

Stereoscopes, Quartoscopes, Illusion
These were peep shows that contained a number of stereo views or photos. The Quartoscopes contained 4 sets of 12 views each. Interestingly, the list does not contain any movie viewers. Edison's Kinetoscope appeared around 1894 and the Mutoscope followed about a year later. Kinetoscope and Mutoscope parlors were hugely popular in the 1890s but soon disappeared (the Kinetoscope had a loop of film, the Mutoscope had a bunch of still images that were flipped to give the illusion of motion). They were eventually supplanted by the rise of the Nickolodeon and other movie houses.


Automatic Phonograph, Illustrated Song Machines

Automated phonograph parlors were also common in the 1890s. Edison didn't actually envision the phonograph as being primarily an amusement device (he thought it would be put to more serious uses). Phonographs in phonograph parlors included either 3 or 4 individual listening tubes or one large one that could accommodate about four people. The automatic phonograph also faded from view around this time and was replaced by coin-operated pianos, orchestrions (which included percussion instruments etc.) and other music machines. It wasn't until the first amplified model in 1927 and the repeal of prohibition that automatic phonographs came back (they were eventually called jukeboxes).
The Illustrated Song Machine was a combination peep show and automatic phonograph.

Lifting Machines, Punching Machines  and Grip Testers

Athletic test machines like this were really the first arcade games. The first coin-op devices overall were vending machines (Heron/Hero of Alexandria described a coin-op holy water dispenser in 215 BC but that was kind of a fluke). The first coin-op amusement machines were "exhibition machines" like Henry Davidson's Chimney Sweep of 1871 or William T. Smith's The Locomotive of 1885 (considered the first U.S. made coin-op amusement machine). In the 1880s, various strength testers etc. began to appear in bars and taverns (actually, they had been there before but in the 1880s people started adding coin slots). Lifting machines involved pulling on handles. grip testers involved squeezing handles etc.
Chimes Lifter

Lung Testers

Another form of athletic tester, these involve blowing into a tube for as long as possible.  The Mills Submarine and Rubberneck models were pretty cool. The first had a case with four tiny deep sea divers on strings. As you blew, they were raised one-by-one. The second had a mannequin with a neck that you stretched.  The Hat Blower wasn't bad either.

Shockers (and Doctor Vibrator)

These were some of the most bizarre machines of all. Believe it or not, people would actually pay money for the privilege of receiving an electric shock. After depositing their coin, they would grab a pair of metal handles and wait while the current passed through their bodies. They were usually billed as therapeutic (hence "Doctor" Vibrator - and shame on you for what you were thinking). Two of the most popular with Midland Manufacturing's Electricity Is Life and Exhibit Supply's Electric Energizer (aka Spear the Dragon), in which you tried to hold the handles the until a dragon-slaying knight crossed a bridge to spear a dragon, an act rewarded by the ringing of a bell.

Fortune Tellers, Cupid Post Office, Card Venders

Coin-op fortune tellers have been around since at least 1867. One of my favorites was the Roovers Brothers Educated Donkey (with a donkey dispensing fortunes). Cupid's Post Office delivered love letters. Other card venders delivered horoscopes, postcards etc. In the post-World-War-I years, card venders became the backbone of the coin-op industry and Exhibit Supply Company was the leading manufacturer by far.

 Other Machines

The perfume sprayer was just what it sounded like (one model, called Take the Bull By the Horns had you grab the horns of a steel bull's head then get spritzed with perfume). The Windmill was a candy machine with a three-bladed "windmill" that spun around. The embossing machine printed out metal tags.

The guide also lists a number of other booths and attractions that could be bought for arcades, including, an automatic rifle range, electrical games (in which you won prizes by plugging into a switchboard), ball throwing games, a rough house (throw balls at the windows of a tiny house), a palmistry booth, glass blowing demonstrations, and a fish pond (catch fish with a pole to win prizes).

 Anyway, I know they're not video games, but I think these machines are pretty neat if you can find them. The Musee Mecanique on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco has a bunch of them. I think Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Farmington Hills, MI has them too, but I've never had the pleasure of visiting.




  1. Interesting breakdown of what would be a penny arcade. Makes me wonder exactly when EM drivers and shooters started coming around?

    The Penny Arcade in Manitou Springs, CO has a ton of antique games. They've been around since 1907. Check out the pictures I took here:

    1. Gun games have been around since at least the 1890s. The Automatic Target Machine Company of New York produced their first gueen games in 1892 but I don't think they were very common. I don't think gun games really became popular until the 1920s, however - especially with the appearance if A.B.T. Manufacturing's pistol game Target Skill in the 1920s (A.B.T. filed for a patent in 1921 but I don't think it went into production until a few years later).

      I think driving games started appearing in the 1940s. A British company called Canova and Thompson released a game called Automatic Cycle Racer in 1897 but I don't think many others followed.

      In 1940 or 1941 International Mutoscope released Drive Mobile, which some say was the first car driving game. Another very cool (IMO) early driving game waa Capitol Projector's Auto Test (1953? - though a number of later models also appeared), which used 8mm film (they also did a boat game).

      This site:
      also has some nice info on old arcade games.