Collectors Gamble on Vintage Slot Machines

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, August 2006 

First 3-reel slot machine, the Liberty Bell

Born in the U.S.A. more than 100 years ago, the slot machine and even more recent coin operated gaming devices are fascinating even the Nintendo generation. For the most part, names like Charles Fey and the “Liberty Bell” or the Berger “Oom-Paul” are familiar only to serious, monied collectors and historians. Slots have been late comers to the collecting scene. One reason is that unlike other American inventions, the slot machine has been virtually shunned, until recently, by museums. Yet, its’ complicated mechanisms are the ancestors of today’s video games and microprocessor slots.


Marshall Fey, grandson of Charles Fey, who invented the first three-reel slot machine in 1889 has written and updated the quintessential book on the subject, “Slot Machines-A Pictorial History of the First 100 years”, with a Price Guide. A collector would pay over $60,000 for an authentic “first” Liberty Bell machine” says Fey. “Only three are known.

One is included in the mini-museum of the Liberty Belle Restaurant and Saloon, in Reno, owned by Marshal and his brother Frank Fey. Over 200 vintage machines are displayed there.


Until recently slot machines and coin-operated gaming machines suffered from an image problem dating back to their beginnings in turn-of-the-century San Francisco saloons and mining town gambling halls. It help that in the 1920s they were associated with racketeers who placed them in illegal “speakeasy” bars during prohibition. That stigma and various reform movements kept them out of .main-stream collecting...and conventional museums. In 1950 California’s $500 “Possession” law, made it illegal to own slot machines or ship them interstate. Hundreds were destroyed. But, they continued to be built, and were used in private clubs and on casino ships. Demand in the 1970s and the growth of casinos in Nevada and Atlantic City once again changed the laws. After the 1988 Indian Gaming Act, coin-operated gaming became legal in casinos on reservations in many states. By the mid-1990s the return of slots became widespread with more than300,000 slot machines operating in twenty-two states.

Charles Fey (1862-1944) inventor of the three most successful slots used in casinos today; 3-reel slot, draw poker and dollar slot. At the age  of 15, Fey walked out of his native Bavaria alone-his goal America. He worked his way across Europe earning passage. In 1885, he arrived in San Francisco to begin a 50 year career devoted to slots.


In his book, Fey notes that there were slot machines as early as 1891. The Clawson Machine Company of Newark, N.J., was the first to manufacture coin machines. Their first was name “automatic Dice.” It was a “trade stimulator” that mechanically shook a set of dice and paid awards in cigars and drinks. Two years later, Clement C. Clawson made the first cash payout machine,” Three jackpots.” Another early pioneer, Gustav F. W. Schultze, patented the first counter wheel automatic paying machine, “The Horseshoe”,  in 1893. The first and only known Schultze machine still in existence was found 16 years ago in a San Francisco building. As a rarity its collector value would be over $15,000 today.

“Because over the years money-paying slot machines were illegal, some ingenious means to get around the law were invented,” Fey says. “There were the trade stimulators that paid off in items that could be redeemed for cash and arcade and vending machines that showed no cash rewards. Some counter slots were made to look like clocks. “According to Fey the best known were the gum machines and cigarette machines. Sometimes payouts were made in tokens or trade checks good for replays or other merchandise. Machines were often equipped with an extra “kitty” that paid in coins.

During the "Gay Nineties," card machines (with a draw) became prolific in most saloons and "cigar stands" nationwide. This is the first draw poker machine, c. 1901.


Over the years hundreds of patents have changed no only the mechanics but the appearances of the slots machines. one of the most prolific of the inventors was Edmun Fey, Marshall Fey’s father. Among his inventions was a 1922 coin-operated pistol range, as well as 21 patents on gambling devices. Other famous names include the Caille Brothers of Detroit who specialize in quality automatic-paying floor machines and their own version of the “Liberty Bell”.

Electro-mechanical machines were made briefly, in quantity, by the Paul E. Berger Company. The best known was the “Oom(Dutch for Uncle) Paul.”. Since they had electrical problems they didn’t last long. All have been documented in Fey’s book. It’s value today ranges from $10,000 to $15,000.


Also collectible are the machine reel symbols. These have changed over the years. The earliest were four card suit symbols, horseshoes and stars. In 1899 the Liberty Bell machine added the bell symbol that earned the highest pay of all, 20 coins. When Mills introduced the Liberty Bell machine in 1910, the reel symbols depicted fruits. The machine was actually a slot machine with an attached gum vendor.


Problems with reproductions and restorations can plague collectors. Often the reel tapes that are really made strictly for restoration are used in repro machines. Only an expert can recognize the look of new metal parts. They can be cast from an old, existing machine.

3-Reel Dollar Slot Machine c.1929


Awarded cards and trademark cards are also easy to reproduce and be ordered through slot mail order catalogs. Also heavily reproduced are counter-top slot machines. While the exterior is usually a new casting, the inside may use original parts.


Restoration of vintage discoveries is possible, and Fey’s book has good advice. For example, he encourages do-it-yourselfers. “To begin simple, inexpensive restoration all you need are a few tools, wood finishing products, spray-on and brush-applied paints, cleaning solvent, lubricants, a source for replacement parts and access to a good metal plating shop.” He also notes that professional slot machine restorers are available around the country.” Reel strips, and other replacement parts can be purchased through slot mail order catalogs or from antique slot dealers in the legal collecting states. Other sources are trade magazines and slot shows.


If you hire a pro it can be expensive. it takes time and professional know how. Some machines have to be completely disassembled and cast iron parts might have to be renickeled at a metal plating shop.


As collector’s say, slot machines are one investment you can play with. 

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