The Rise and Fall of the Penny Arcade


coin-operated-strength-tester-by-Gottlieb.png (364146 bytes)A penny arcade is any venue that uses coin-operated machines, usually for entertainment, that cost a penny to play. The name derives from the coin that was used to operate the machines, and the term came into use around 1905. The machines that were used in early arcades were:

• Bagatelles ( non-electrical, billiards-like game)

• Pinball Machines - non-electrical, spring-loaded

Fortune-telling Devices

Slot Machines – prizes were fruit-flavored gum, candy, a pack of cigarettes, or a cigar, depending on their location (to keep from being considered gambling devices)

Amberolas - internal horn cylinder phonographs

Peep Show Machines (that showed objects and pictures)

Mutoscopes (black-and-white images on tough, flexible cards mounted on a rotating circular core that could be viewed by one person)

Love Tester Machines

Shooting Games

Strength Tester Machines

Penny arcades enjoyed tremendous success and popped up in nearly every town, small and large, across the United States. The most successful and profitable game was the fruit machine, or as we call it today, the one-armed bandit, which at one time or another was once banned almost everywhere.

Mutoscope machines, or ‘What the Butler Saw’ as they were seductively called, were many peoples’ first experience with ‘moving pictures.’ Although previously single machines were placed in shops and bars, the popularity mutoscopes is credited with starting the first multiple machine arcades called Mutoscope parlors.

The midways of 1920s-era amusement parks, such as Coney Island, provided an impetus for later arcade games. In the 1930s the first coin-operated pinball machines emerged. Made of wood, these early models were spring-loaded and lacked electricity and flippers, which weren’t added until around 1947. Pinball became controversial with some factions calling it a game of chance, and therefore gambling. The addition of flippers added credence to the idea that pinball was a game of skill.

During the 1930s, David Gottlieb’s Baffle Ball (1931) and Raymond Moloney’s Ballyhoo (1932) introduced pinball to arcades. As pinball designers added bumpers, flippers, and thematic artwork, pinball surged in popularity, even as legislators banned the game by associating it with gambling, organized crime, and delinquency. Nevertheless, over the next three decades arcade owners replaced many older mechanical novelty games with pinball machines and electromechanical baseball, target shooting, horse racing, shuffle board, and bowling games. Pinball machines ruled arcades until the late 1960s.

The decline of the early penny arcade probably occurred for one reason … progress. Movie theaters usurped mutoscopes. There were constantly changes and major new innovations, like the automobile that created a new excitement and lessened interest in arcades by pulling customers into new adventures.

If you are nostalgic for the feel of an old arcade, you might want to visit, or visit the oldest penny arcade in America, Spring Lake Arcade in Harrisville, Rhode Island.

There might be a resurrection of the arcade brewing today. At least one town that I know of has an arcade/bar that features skeeball, console video games, and pinball. So maybe if you are patient, an arcade with vintage games might pop up in a city near you!

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