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

Comprehensive History of American Penny Scales Coming this Year


A Century of Ingenuity and Design

Most Americans are familiar with vintage jukeboxes and 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 and spread throughout the everyday lives of society, promoting good health. Affordable private bathroom scales were still half a century in the future.

Christopher K. Steele, internationally known penny scale collector, and Dr. Ruth K. Meyer, former director of the Taft Museum, are in the final stages of writing the first comprehensive history of the American penny scale. The book is rich with colorful images. Seventy-one machines, dating from 1891 to 1991 with their patinas intact, are highlighted in all their glorious colors. Ephemera from the Steele Collection Archives add fun and depth to this enthralling story of American ingenuity and 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 popular culture phenomenon of public, coin-operated weighing machines. The narrative introduces the inventors, investors, designers, producers, and promoters of this new industry that evolved into the multibillion-dollar vending business it is today. Over fifty different American shops were manufacturing coin-activated scales before 1900. Much of this story is Chicago's, the Coin-op Capital of the World. Detroit, New York City, and the state of Vermont also provided valuable players to the initial development of these self-operating machines.

The coin-triggered weighing machine launched an industry and made many ambitious entrepreneurs wealthy. Notable fat cats of the Gilded Age bankrolled the emerging enterprise. The rags-to-riches profiles of the clever innovators are fascinating.

These coin-operated agents of service, without goods to sell, set the foundation for factories and product lines to expand. The "pay-to-weigh" experiment was sound and opened the door for the merchandized dispensers to follow, bringing into the public consciousness society's first concerns that robots could take away jobs. One hundred and thirty-five years later, the automatic vending sensation thrives a thousand fold.

Drop Coin Here

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

The early visionaries bit off more than they could chew. The first machines were difficult to maintain. A few years later, this budding industry rolled out less-complicated devices that charged only one cent, and the American penny scale was born.

LA Department of Weights and Measures

Over the next three decades, manufacturers continued to experiment with enticements to attract more coins to their slots. However, the challenges of accuracy and dependability proved to be more important to the public and the government. Once conquered, more complicated automatons could make their return. Horoscopes, guess your weight, and ticket dispensing systems could once again be utilized to add revenue to these plentiful, crafty "penny eaters."

Samples of graphic design and ephemera from the collection illuminate this captivating tale.

Marquee Kirk


Horiscope Stars Say


Red Dress on Scale

Charlie Chaplin - Modern Times

Thousands of ticket-printing scales were on location coast to coast making them ideal for film props and promotion. Hollywood studios placed portraits of their motion picture stars on the vest-pocket cards dispensed by these popular machines. At its peak, the largest operator of coin-controlled weighing machines in the world, Peerless Weighing Machine Company of Detroit, printed movie star weight tickets by the millions.

Movie star weight tickets

Collecting pictures of movie stars became enormously popular. Initially, the one-by-two-inch portraits were printed in black and white. Color portraits followed and added to their allure.

Movie star weight tickets

Fortunes composed by well-paid psychologists were printed on the back of the tickets next to a space where the weight and date were stamped. The increased confidentiality afforded by this innovation added immeasurably to the scales' popularity. Preeminent chain stores also took advantage of the tickets.

Fortunes printed on the backs of tickets

Harold Lloyd and Ann Christy in Speedy, 1928

Five Art Deco Scales

Modern design was essential to the success of coin-driven scales. Pioneers in the emerging field of industrial design, Joseph Sinel, Everett Eckland, and Harold Van Doren created brilliant models for their person weighers. They were influenced by world events including the opening of King Tut's Tomb in 1923, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs held in Paris in 1925, and the architecture of skyscrapers.

ITS Mills Toledo

The Talking Scale

Patented in 1903-06, this scale employed a sound recording and was the first to offer a nickel-drop gambling device with a weighing machine. One of a kind, it audibly broadcast the weight for all within earshot using a vertically mounted phonograph record. Each groove on the rotating disc had a number recorded on it. A needle mechanically connected to the platform of the scale would find the right groove and distinctly make the announcement. Remarkably, this preceded the compact disc by five decades. Experiencing this new technology cost five cents, equivalent to the cost of two loaves of bread.

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 annually into these ingenious attractions. 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

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