It was only a matter of time before “penny in the slot machines” made their way to Skaneateles. In 1888, on New York City train platforms, the Thomas Adams Gum Company introduced vending machines that dispensed chewing gum when you put a penny in the slot. Soon there were “penny in the slot” machines that told your weight, dispensed candy, peanuts or postage stamps.
In 1891, a company in Brooklyn developed a gambling machine based on poker. Players would put in a nickel and pull a lever, five drums would spin and the player would receive a poker hand. A good hand could pay off with a free beer or a cigar. Soon every saloon and cigar store had one or more of these lucrative “slot machines.”
By 1893, the hybrid vending/gambling machines had made their way here. The Skaneateles Free Press reported:
“’Penny-in-the-slot’ machines are in operation in this village as mentioned before and complaints [are made] that even 10 year old boys are permitted to risk their pennies in these gaming devices, in the hope of securing a cigar! One place on Genesee Street has often a crowd of boys out of school hours on week days and also on Sundays. Is this legitimate or beneficial to our youth?” (Dec. 29, 1893)
“The gambling slot machines are in operation in several places in this village. The village authorities should suppress them at once, as is being done in nearly every city in the state. The slot machines are a great inducement to gambling.” (Mar. 23, 1894)
In October of 1897, the U.S. Mint reported that the demand for pennies was at an all-time high; they were minting close to 4 million per month. A spokesman explained that the penny in the slot machine “has spread over the land like the locusts of Egypt within the past two or three years. A single automatic machine company takes in half a million pennies a day. As there isn’t a cross-roads village in the country that hasn’t a chewing gum, kinetoscope, music or weighing machine operated in this way, the number of coins required to keep them all going is enormous.”
In 1906, the Skaneateles Free Press again made its case:
“How about the slot machines in Skaneateles? The attention of the Village Fathers is called to them. Men, youth and even school boys are seen playing slot machines in this village, fostering their gambling spirit and demoralizing those who play them. Why should not the slot machines in Skaneateles cigar stores or other places go?” (Jan. 9, 1906)
“A local merchant, speaking the other day about penny in the slot machines, said he purchased one in self defence, because he was continually short of coppers to make change, having to hunt up $3 or $4 worth every day. He therefore resolved to secure a slot machine and found it kept him well supplied with pennies.” (Oct. 3, 1906)
By this time, public opinion, or at least the public’s stated opinion, was trending against slot machines and they were declared illegal. However, reports of raids and confiscations in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s attest to their continuing popularity among those willing to risk jail in Syracuse, Auburn and Utica.
Skaneateles was rid of the scourge early on, with one notable exception.
Two histories of the Skaneateles Country Club note that slot machines were introduced to the Club in the early 1940s. Beverley Hastings Lapham (1903-1980), a stock broker and golfer, cited a slot machine from the Mills Bell Company of Chicago as “the bulwark of our financial income at the Club.” At first there were three: a nickel, a dime and a quarter slot machine. A second quarter slot machine was purchased in 1946. When the winter months came and golfers went to warmer climes, the slot machines were sent to the basement of the National Bank & Trust Co. on Genesee Street.
Sadly, in consideration of rising concerns about their legality, the machines were disposed of in 1953. And so ended a colorful era.
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Thanks to Gil Elvgren for his illustration, “Potluck,” showing a 1948 Mills High Top Jewel Bell.