Luke Honey’s cabinet of curiosities: arcade machines

Our columnist considers the compulsion to collect and shares his latest obsession

Antique arcade machines

One of my favourite places on Earth is the Musée Mécanique on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. It’s a museum or amusement arcade devoted to the atmospheric world of the antique slot machine. You’re allowed to play with them, and they all work.

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For a dollar or two, you can test your strength or prowess in love, watch an execution at the hands of the infernal electric chair, play a honky-tonk pianola, ‘improve your health’ with an electric shock, have your fortune told, or discover ‘What The Butler Saw’.

These automata are now rather valuable, and early antique examples can fetch thousands of pounds. There’s another wonderful collection at Wookey Hole in Somerset, evoking the faded glories of the Edwardian seaside and said to be the most extensive collection of penny arcade machines in the country.

‘Penny Arcades’ were popular at the beginning of the 20th century, found especially on seaside piers, and were affordable amusements for the working class. Improvements in the railways meant ordinary people could now spend a happy day at the seaside, a privilege previously enjoyed by the wealthier classes.

In 1883, Percival Everett invented the first modern coin-operated vending machine. It soon became a popular addition to London’s railway stations and post offices, dispensing postcards, envelopes and writing paper.

Simple coin-operated machines had existed before, especially as novelty amusements at fairs and travelling shows but, in 1871, Henry Davidson invented an ingenious machine featuring an animated figure of a chimney sweep, which came to life at the drop of a penny.

Antique arcade machines
This coin-operated fortune teller made £2,040 at Christie’s in its Nic Costa Collection of Amusement Machines in 2006.

In 1885, Richard Page patented the first coin-operated strength-testing machine, followed by William Oliver with the first successful electric shock machine in 1886.

By the mid 1890s, mutoscopes – or penny peep shows – were especially popular with young men. These worked on the same principle as flipbooks, but had a sequence of photographs mounted on separate cards attached to a wheel. By cranking a handle, the viewer could, in effect, watch a short film.

As you can imagine, the titillating nature of these productions began to give the penny arcade an undesirable reputation. In any event, crowds were being drawn away by the Nickelodeon thrill of the silver screen.

In response, arcade owners introduced new machines aimed at a wider audience, shifting the emphasis towards wholesome sports – target practice, shooting, racing and pinball.

Antique arcade machines
A ‘What the Butler Saw’ early peep show machine from the early 1900s.

Antique machines come up at auction from time to time. In 2006, Christie’s sold The Nic Costa Collection of Amusement Machines, which included desirable examples.

Original antique fortune tellers tend to be expensive. A rare Madame Zita machine (made by Roovers Brothers between 1895 and 1904) fetched over £123,000 at Morphy Auctions in Las Vegas, while an unrestored Princess Doraldina from 1928 fetched £14,116 at the same auction house in Pennsylvania.

Still, it’s possible to buy amusing – if less sinister – machines at affordable prices. A ‘What the Butler Saw’ mutoscope (by the International Mutoscope Reel Company of New York) made £1,200 at Philip Serrell in 2018, and an early electric shock machine brought £1,000 at Elephant House Auctions in 2019.

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Post-war machines fetch less and come up for sale relatively often: a Mastermatic football game from the estate of actor Peter Wyngarde – the face of Jason King – made £190, and a saucy 1980s ‘Sex Tester’ from Bognor Regis Pier fetched £110 earlier this year.