Fortune Telling Machines
By Cheryl Keyser

Whether a stockbroker or a housewife, everyone would like to know what awaits them in the future. The sources are abundant - a psychic, the newspaper horoscope, a crystal ball, a fortune cookie - and, although people know that this is just a form of amusement, they are still drawn to it.

Donkey Wonder - courtesy Morphy Auctions.jpg (45518 bytes)In seeking answers, one mechanism that has evolved over the years is the fortune-telling machine. Its invention is attributed to J. Parkes of England. Having one's fortune told was a big event at the various local fairs, feeding people's unending curiosity to know what will happen (preferably good) over the coming days, months, or years. At these early events, live fortunetellers were popular, but a major change came in 1867 when Parkes obtained a patent for a machine he developed that would predict one's future for a cent. It was so arranged that after the coin was deposited into the slot, it would engage one of several disks, each of a different diameter, to dispense a fortune. The information was printed on a ticket. However, his invention did not go far, as he apparently did not market it well. Next, came a machine from John Dennison, also British, and he also developed a mechanical fortuneteller, but again he was not a great promoter of his product.

But the idea did not die, as that curiosity continued to drive the popularity of these machines. As Ken Rubin, an avid coin-operated machine collector with over 350 machines and working on a book on the history of cigar vending machines, noted, "You go to a fortune-telling machine first of all to get your fortune."

The first ones, which became popular in the United States, were the Donkey Wonder and the Elephant Wonder, based on the symbols of the two major political parties. An eminently attractive come-on was printed on the front panel of the Donkey machine, which confirmed that "Donkey Wonder will solve your problems."

These machines were first produced in 1891 and later electrified in 1910 by the Roover Brothers of Brooklyn, N.Y. Adding to their attraction was the ingenuity of the maker who introduced almost life-like motion. The Donkey Wonder moved its head, ears, mouth, and held a rod in her paw or hand (the Donkey wore a dress), which hit a wheel causing it to spin. The wheel had numbers on it and when the spinning stopped a corresponding fortune would appear. There were 24 fortunes in all. "They were stunning machines and rare," enthused Rubin, who is a fan of their mechanical expertise the physical art.

One of the next machines was the Madame Zita fortuneteller, which was patented in 1896 by the Roovers. Another automaton, she was costumed as a gypsy. Once a coin was inserted, the figure would move her hand to pick up a card with a fortune printed on it, dispense it, and, in a wonderful culmination, throw the player a kiss.

Morphy Auctions is said to have recently sold a Madam Zita machine for $200,000, a record price, and a hefty increase over a 2005 auction in which a Madam Zita went for $36,000 and in 2006 for $41,000.

A charming Puss 'n Boots, based on the storybook character, was made by the Roover Brothers from 1897 to 1904; it was recreated in the 1930s and again in the 1980s.

In the early part of the 20th century, fortune-telling machines were often placed in front of penny arcades, noted Rubin, dispensing fortunes as a way to draw in the public. (Today, they are known as "trade stimulators.")

One of the featured machines was the gypsy, Doraldina, who held a glowing crystal ball and had animatronic features with the head and eyes moving and the chest "breathing." In the early 1940s along came the "Gypsy Grandma" from Geneco. This was based on the player's astrological sign and the fortuneteller held playing cards in her right hand and a magic wand in her left. She would examine the card before it was issued to the player, perhaps to give it a touch of authenticity.

A 1929 machine, whose predictions were probably especially coveted that momentous year, was manufactured by WiIliam Gent Manufacturing and was known as "Grandmothers Predictions."   A much later fortuneteller came in the form of a Swami Napkin Holder. This was made by the F. E. Erickson Company in the 1950s. It was a tabletop machine, bearing the image of the "Swami" and fit inside a napkin holder. It is best associated with an episode of the T.V. Series, "Twilight Zone," in which William Shatner played, before he gained fame on "Star Trek."

One of the best known of the fortune-telling machines in modern times is one featuring the magician, "Zoltar," which was in the movie "Big" with Tom Hanks. This machine has also been in several other productions, including an episode of "Limitless" and "Bioshock."

Coin-operated fortune telling machines are still being made today by Characters Unlimited and come in hundreds of characters, of which the most popular is still the fortune-teller. They advertise their machines as all 'built from scratch" in the United States. The mechanisms of the machines have evolved with up-to-date electronics, but their basic attraction has not changed, and who knows, may also become future collectibles.

Rubin speculates that one of the reasons behind the popularity of coin-operated machines was the coinage used in the United States. "The penny and nickel were perfect for the coin industry because of their weight, dimes were harder because they were thinner." He also maintains that when these machines were first adopted in the United States, the general financial situation of the public helped the industry to grow. "At that time, if a man could burn a nickel a day in a coin-operated machine, it indicated that he was doing well."

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