Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Penny a Light

QUESTION: I love quirky old machines. Recently, I purchased a penny vending machine that I think held matches from an online auction. The seller couldn’t tell me much about it, but it’s in pretty good condition. It looks like it stood on a counter or table and stands 13½ inches tall. The machine seems to be made of cast white metal, but the slot that the penny drops through is made of wood. Unfortunately, the machine came with no label on it, so I have no idea who made it. An unusual feature is a cigar tip cutter which sits at the front of the base. Can you tell me who made this vending machine and how old it is. 

ANSWER: From what you described, I’d say you have a Sellem match vending machine, most likely produced around 1912 by the Northwestern Corporation of Chicago, which also produced a varied line of gumball machines.

Northwestern released 70 different machines under the Sellem name, starting in 1911. In addition to the Sellem match vending machine, the company also produced stamp vending machines and another type called Penny Matches.

The Sellem line was the deluxe model of the Northwestern match vendor line. The top, front and base are all made in the beautiful Art Nouveau style from cast iron, not white metal as you supposed. Two dolphins decorate the front of this machine. The Sellem was the firm’s  only model to have a cigar cutter and matchbox holder, both of which enticed customers to the machine and reminded them to buy a box of matches.

The Sellem came in two models. The A model had frames attached to the machine's sides and top that contained advertising panels and the more common B model, which seems to be what you have. The company also made a third version for a private match company, called The Scup. The Sellem dispensed small cardboard boxes of matches. The front of the machine had a holder that would hold the last box dispensed. These machines originally came in white, green or antique silver, and sometimes had brass-colored accents. 

Back in 1912, you would have most likely found your machine sitting on a table in the smoking lounge of a fine hotel. It was the custom of gentlemen at the time to smoke cigars after dinner. When a gentleman inserted a penny, it would drop through the wooden piece and allow the push bar to go back and forth. The machine also had a removable match loading compartment which often is missing on ones appearing for sale today. The cigar tip cutter was an added feature that enabled smokers to prepare their cigar before lighting.

Sellem vending machines sell for between $300 and $400. However, a fine one sold at auction for $960, but that’s rare.

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