The American Weigh - The Christopher K. Steele Collection
Christopher Steele with his Collection



Many Americans are familiar with vintage jukeboxes, gumball, candy and pop machines. Few are aware that in 1885, "nickel-in-the-slot" weighing machines preceded them and were the first coin-operated concept of significance to teach Americans how to feed coins into machines. These "coin-in-the-slot" scales offered the public their first opportunity to know their weight without visiting a doctor's office or standing on a commercial scale. Within a few short years, penny-in-the-slot scales made their debut. Affordable private bathroom scales were half a century into the future.

Christopher K. Steele, internationally known American penny scale collector, Dr. Ruth K. Meyer, former director of the Taft Museum and Faith Hart, editor, are in the final stages of writing the first comprehensive history of the American penny scale. The book will be rich with colorful images. Seventy-one machines, dating from 1891 to 1991, with their patinas intact, will be highlighted in all their glorious colors. Ephemera from the Steele Collection archive will add fun and depth to this enthralling story of American ingenuity and industrial design.

The storyline includes a wide range of topics for those who wish to explore American community life of the late 19th and 20th centuries through the phenomena of public, coin-operated weighing machines. The narrative introduces the inventors, investors, designers, producers and promoters, of a new business that evolved into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Much of this history is Chicago's, the coin-op capital of the world.

The coin-controlled weighing machine launched an industry and made the ambitious entrepreneurs wealthy. Notable fat cats of the Gilded Age bankrolled the emerging enterprise. New York City was where it all started. The rags-to-riches profiles of many of the clever innovators are fascinating.

These coin-operated agents of service, without goods to dispense, set the foundation for factories and product lines to expand. The coin-op experiment proved to be sound and opened the door for merchandise dispensers to follow. One-hundred and thirty-five years later the automatic vending sensation thrives a thousand-fold.

Drop Coin Here

Right from the start, crazy enticements were added to scales to coax coins from the pockets of the entertainment hungry public. Electric shock, music, tickets, strength and lung testers captivated those longing to be amused while ascertaining their weight.

These early visionaries bit off more than they could chew. The first machines proved to be too difficult to maintain. A few years later, this budding industry rolled out less complicated mechanisms that charged only a penny.

LA Department of Weights and Measures

Over the next three decades, the public weighing companies continued to experiment with enticements to attract more coins to their slots. The challenges of accuracy and dependability proved to be more important. Once conquered, the more complicated automatons could make their return. Guess your weight, horoscopes and ticket dispensing systems could be trusted and added to these crafty penny eaters.

Ephemera from The Steele Collection, will add amusement to this captivating tale.

Marquee Kirk


Horiscope Stars Say

Red Dress on Scale and Blue Scale

Charlie Chaplin - Modern Times

Hollywood honored penny scales. A variety of automatic weighing machines were used on film sets. Thousands of ticket-printing scales from coast to coast served Hollywood in two ways. They were ideal for props and secondly for promotion. The studios could place portraits of their motion picture stars on the vest pocket cards dispensed by the weighing machines.

The ticket-scale's popularity cannot be overstated. At their peak, the largest operator of public weighing machines in the world, Peerless Weighing Machine Company of Detroit, printed movie star weight tickets by the boxcar load.

Movie star weight tickets

Initially, the one by two-inch portraits were printed in black and white. Color portraits followed.

Movie star weight tickets

On the reverse side of the tickets, fortunes written by well paid psychologists, were printed next to a blank space where the weight and date was stamped. This private weighing method took the nation by storm and provided a printed record. It is no wonder collecting pictures of movie stars became so fashionable.

Fortunes printed on the backs of tickets

Peerless Fortune Ticket Issuing Scale

Above, Ann Christy reads her fortune from a Peerless Fortune Ticket-Issuing Scale. A similar scale from the Steele Collection appears to the left. A typical ticket would look something like this ticket below. Fortune tickets first appeared on the scene around 1925. The motion picture stars would be added circa 1929.

Fortune ticket front and back

Front and back of a typical fortune ticket

Cartoonists, quick to seize on common objects of daily life, had fun with the shape we're in.

Blondie cartoon

Pink Panther cartoon
Ziggy and Howard Huge cartoons

Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post

Five Art Deco Scales

Fine design was essential to the success of coin-impelled scales. Early scale proposals, in the emerging arena of industrial design, were heavily influenced by skyscraper architecture and Egyptomania. The latter being brought on by the opening of King Tut's Tomb in 1923. Pioneers of this bourgeoning field, Joseph Sinel, Everett Elkland and Harold Van Doren, created brilliant scale designs.

ITS Mills Toledo

The Talking Scale

Patented 1903-06 - This scale employed a sound recording and was the first to offer a nickeldrop gambling device with a weighing machine. It is one of a kind. It audibly broadcasted the weight for all within earshot. A vertically mounted phonograph record was used to deliver the numbers in pounds. Each groove on the rotating record had a number recorded on it. A needle mechanically connected to the platform of the scale would find the right groove with the information needed. This preceded the compact disc by five decades. Experiencing this new technology cost five cents, the equivalent price of two loaves of bread at the time.

Big profits in every crowd

The Featuristic Scale

Once corner landmarks, penny scales stood watch like sentries across the American landscape. The public relied on these mechanical wonders to monitor their health and weight for half a century. In their prime, over one billion pennies were dropped into these ingenious attractions annually. Pitched as trade stimulators and known as silent salesmen, these "robots of trade" evoke nostalgia for simpler, healthier times.

Grace and Broadway, Chicago

The designers and manufacturers of these cultural artifacts required more than innovative engineering. They were masters of many materials that would be cost prohibitive today. Cast iron, hardwood, cast aluminum, porcelain enamel, etched glass, mirrors, and chrome, brass and nickel plate were used to manufacture coin-actuated weighing machines.

In 1936, the U.S. Department of Commerce issued a report that stated, "Penny Weighing Scales are the principle means of over 130 million people keeping in touch with their weight and health." Over one billion pennies were dropped into personal weighing scales annually. That $10 million, adjusted for inflation, is equivalent to over $182 million in 2020.

Public weighing machines weave their way through the history of automatic vending with pay-to-weigh scales still being manufactured in the United States today. Those credited with the ingenious mechanisms and dynamic designs brought to light in this book stand tribute to America's first coin-operated device to teach the masses to feed coins into machines.

Roy Rogers


Caille Moderne Base