Slot Machines The One-Armed BanditsJune 16, 2018
Slot machines have been played in one form or another since a San Francisco machinist named Charles Fey invented the first one in the 1890s. Before the turn of the century they were placed in bars around the Bay Area, ostensibly winning the players free drinks if they lined up the correct symbols, but in reality the payoffs were in coins.
The symbols used on these early Liberty Bell slots were those of playing cards-hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades. In addition to these card symbols, there were bells, horseshoes, and a star. The bell symbol is still used today. On these antique machines the payoffs ran from one nickel for lining up two horseshoes to the big payout of ten nickels for hitting all three bells.
The Liberty Bells were originally made of cast iron and manufactured by hand. They were small enough to be placed on bar tops and became extremely popular.
Fey became hard Pressed to meet the demand for his machines, for he operated the business and took care of the distribution and commissions himself. The profits were split down the middle with the saloon keepers, 50 percent to Fey and 50 percent to the owner Of the bar.
The Liberty Bells proved extremely profitable, since they were designed to return only 86 percent of the coins placed in them. Because there was a federal tax on playing cards and since there were playing card symbols on each machine.
Fey put a two-cent federal revenue stamp on each slot to keep within the law. It was essentially a one-man business, and it lasted all the way into the 1930s. The Liberty Bell Saloon and Restaurant on South Virginia in Reno, Nevada, run by the grandsons of Charles Fey, has a collection of many of the early slots, including the original Liberty Bells, which are no longer in operation in casinos.
A machine that took in and paid out coins without needing an employee to staff it was too appealing to remain exclusively in the hands of a local manufacturer like Fey.