Found in train stations, general stores, smoke shops, and pubs, these machines, constructed of wood and metal, were thought of as “silent salesmen,” working 24 hours a day.
The early 20th-century vending machines looked like what most people think of as old-fashioned gumball machines, with claw feet, scroll embellishments made of cast iron, and glass globes.
Gumball machines made in the 1920s and 1930s were built using steel construction or finished with porcelain enamel over cast iron, giving the device an attractive appearance, often in a cheerful fire-engine red.
During Prohibition, gambling, be it cards or slot machines, was banned along with alcohol. Surprisingly, gumball machines were also considered a form of gambling! One such outlawed machine, the Hawkeye, was built so that on every 10th pull of its lever, a bell would ring and the customer would get his or her penny back along with the gumball.
Vending machines got simpler after World War II. They were made of plastic and cheaper metal like aluminum. In the ’50s and ’60s, supermarkets and drugstores usually had gumball machines, branded Ford, Northwestern 60, Toy ’n Joy, Victor, and Oak Acorn. For beginners, postwar machines are the easiest to start collecting.
The most fragile part of a typical gumball machine is the glass globe that holds and displays the multi-colored balls. While broken globes are often replaced, and restoration doesn’t destroy the value of a vintage machine, dedicated collectors pay the most for original machines in excellent condition, with original parts.
Antique gumball machines increasingly rare
In some cases, the parts are so rare that even a machine casing gets pricey. The outside case for a Pulver Kola-Pepsin gum machine, with some wear and no internal workings, recently captured $1,878 on eBay.
Vintage gumball machines make great display pieces, and collectors of mechanical contraptions know that some machines can bring hundreds, or even thousands, at auction.