By Maddie Orton
In the age of smartphones and credit cards it may seem like ancient history, but not that long ago, coin-operated machines were the height of convenience. Morris Museum’s new exhibit, For Amusement Only: Arcades and Cafes, showcases antique pieces like that these that had people lining up to spend their pennies.
“We’re looking at a time of history where machines became very important,” explained Morris Museum Guinness Collection Curator Michele Marinelli. “You could take care of your own needs by yourself. You didn’t need another person. If you were an owner, you didn’t have to hire somebody else to stand there at that counter to sell or dispense certain goods because you had a machine.”
The machines date back as far as 1888 and include automatic musical instruments, gambling and vending machines, and the predecessors to your favorite boardwalk amusements.
Except for a few light bulbs, there’s really nothing electric-powered about most of these machines. Jere Ryder knows that well. He’s the conservator for Morris Museum’s Guinness Collection of Mechanical Musical Instruments and Automata. Some of the musical pieces in the exhibit are from that Guinness permanent collection; others are on loan.
“I grew up in a collecting family of these types of devices — music boxes and some automata,” said Ryder. “I was intrigued with mechanisms, so I started to actually take some things apart.”
Ryder went on to study at a Swiss music box factory and apprentice with an antique automata restorer.
“It didn’t have to be complicated on the inside, and many of them actually use modern technology of that time. Like the Mystic Mirror,” said Ryder, referencing a piece in the exhibit. “It utilizes a series of slides … that then a light would come on from the drop of a penny, and the pulling of a lever to show you this mystical image behind the glass of your fortune.”
The mechanics may be fairly basic, but the impact they have can be tremendous. And as anyone whose brought a stack of quarters to the boardwalk knows, it’s hard to walk away from a compelling amusement.
“So now we have manufacturers who are specifically producing these machines, they’re being brought into a single location — the penny arcade,” Marinelli said. “And it was a very lucrative business proposition.”
Of course, some coin-operated machines caught on better than others. Fortune tellers and fighting robots have been a hit, but you’re not likely find a tin chicken that lays hard boiled eggs anytime soon.
Fortunately Morris Museum has these nickelodeons, slot machines and horoscope readers on display through October, and monthly demonstrations are available to give visitors a full view of the mechanical magic.