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

A comprehensive history of the American penny scale is planned for a 2020 publishing date.

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 devices of significance to teach Americans how to feed coins into machines. These "coin-in-the-slot" scales offered the public their first opportunity to weigh themselves without visiting a doctor's office or standing on a freight scale. Within a few short years, penny scales made their debut. Affordable private bathroom scales were 50 years 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. Seventy-one machines, dating from 1891 to 1991, with their patinas intact, will be highlighted. Ephemera from the Steele Collection archive will add depth and fun to this colorful story of American ingenuity and industrial design.

The narrative includes a wide range of topics for historians who wish to explore the community life of the late 19th and 20th centuries through the phenomena of American public, coin-operated, weighing machines. This story will touch on the inventors, investors, promoters, manufacturers and designers that started what has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry.

The coin-operated weighing machine started an industry that made investors wealthy and provided manufacturers the inspiration to explore and create new vending ideas. As the variety of coin-operated devices increased, millions of dollars were added to the nation's economy. One-hundred and thirty-five years later the coin-operated phenomenon continues to thrive a thousand-fold.

Right from the start, crazy enticements were added to scales to coax coins from the pockets of the passerby. Electric shock, music, tickets, strength and lung testers captivated those longing to be entertained while ascertaining their weight. However, the early inventors bit off more than they could chew.

The first machines proved to be too difficult to maintain. This budding industry settled for less complicated mechanisms and inspired designers and engineers to create more entertaining apparatus that operated for only a penny.

In the first three decades, the pioneers of the public weigh perfected their mechanisms and once again were able to add enticements to attract more coins into the slots of their machines. Mirrors, games of chance, guess your weight apparatuses, horoscopes and ticket dispensing mechanisms were added to coin-actuated scales. These machines, without goods to dispense, set the foundation for factories and product lines to expand.

Penny scales appear throughout twentieth-century popular culture. Samples from the Steele Collection's ephemera archive will add fun and depth to this fascinating history.

Hollywood honored penny scales. They were ideal for props and promoting their motion picture stars.There were a variety of types of coin-operated weighing machines used on film sets. One type, ticket-scales, were found by the thousands in towns and cities coast to coast. They were owned and operated nationally by the Peerless Weighing Machine Company, the largest operator of public weighing machines in the world.The ticket-scale's popularity cannot be overstated. At their peak, Peerless printed over one-hundred million movie star tickets at a time.