Monday, June 8, 2015

A Penny a Pack

QUESTION: I recently discovered what looks like a toy slot machine while browsing in a local thrift shop. But instead of different types of fruit in the window, it shows packs of cigarettes.  The machine is painted bright red and blue with silver accents. An emblem showing a sophisticated lady smoking a cigarette appears on the front under the window. What can you tell me about my new toy?

ANSWER: To begin with, your little slot machine isn’t a toy. It’s what’s called a trade stimulator, an item certain businesses used to stimulate business.

Trade stimulators were countertop machines used to encourage shoppers to indulge in a game of chance. They became popular in American saloons during the 1880s. Eventually, cigar, confectionery and general store owners saw their potential for generating business and began using them. Produced in a wide range of designs, these little machines originated around the same time as slot machines. Players inserted a coin and pulled a lever. If they got a winning combination, they won prizes of cigars, cigarettes, candy and other goods. When certain states prohibited gambling, business owners could use these machines without fear of prosecution.

The Groetchen Tool & Manufacturing Company in Chicago, one of many companies that manufactured these little machines, produced a variety of models of trade stimulators from 1936 through 1948. This particular one is known as the Liberty Bell or just Liberty. It stood 10 inches tall, 9 inches wide, and 10 inches deep and weighed about 14 pounds. The Liberty dispensed tokens for l or 5 packs of cigarettes. The three reels in the Liberty Bell have pictures of seven different brands of cigarettes. On the front cover of the slot machine is the image of a sophisticated lady smoking a cigarette that’s almost Art-Deco looking.

Many of these trade stimulators used tokens rather than coins, also known as mints. In many cases, players could exchange these tokens, especially ones marked “mints” for cash "under the counter." Other tokens displayed the words “candy” or “cigarettes” and could be exchanged for them.

J. H. Keeny & Company, which made amusement and gambling machines in Chicago, also produced the tokens used in trade simulators. In the 1960s, the Mills Novelty Company bought J.H. Keeny & Company.

Some machines also disguised themselves as vending machines by giving winners cigarettes or cigars rather than mints. For only one cent, the customer could play the machine by inserting the penny and pulling the handle. If they would line up three of a kind on the reels than the machine dispensed a special token good for a pack of cigarettes at the lower right side of the machine.

To further hide that a machine gave winners cigarettes, some tokens had different numbers of stars rather than saying “2 packs” or 5 packs.” Groetchen also made a trade stimulator machine called the Ginger, which appeared on the market in June of 1937 and took the star tokens. The stars disguised the gambling nature of the machine. As with the mints tokens, it was probably possible to exchange tokens for cash, at least at some businesses.

So what’s a Liberty Bell Penny Cigarette Slot Machine worth?  The "Liberty" Trade Stimulator dates from the early 1940's. The basic model of this machine came in many different configurations, and model types. Many still exist today. This trade stimulator still holds it's own with an average value of $200 in today’s market, despite surviving in great numbers.

During the peak of popularity for trade stimulators, a lot of companies copied each others’ models and gave them different names. However, collectors today are well aware of the many reproduction trade stimulators that have been flooding the market. Even though some began to appear as early as the late 1970’s, most came on the market in the mid-80’s.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

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