Our favourite shops seem to contain more self-serve checkouts and less cashiers lately. Some of us balk at that disruption to our usual way of doing and will stubbornly stand in line at the lone person-manned checkout while others do their own scanning and bagging at automated terminals.
I am slowly going over to the dark side and embracing the new technology. I’m not actually sure what was holding me back in the first place – fear of new electronics, sympathy for no longer needed workers or simply the change from lifelong practices?
Around one hundred years ago, there was a similar unease with a technological change in Barrie. Of course, it started elsewhere but these things always made their way to our town eventually.
The first of these slot machines was not what you might think. The Bell Telephone company introduced their ‘nickel-in-the-slot’ pay phone system to Barrie customers in 1924.
The local newspapers carried mentions of similar coin operated innovations in larger centres. New York City had widespread soda water vending machines by the mid-1920s.
Of course, New York had been an early player in the automated vendor game. Chewing gum manufacturer Thomas Adams first installed vending machines in railway platforms all over the city in 1888 to sell his Tutti-Fruiti gum and it was a huge success.
What really tainted the perception of all of these new devices was sudden introduction of one particular version of the technology.
Despite its legendary reputation as a raucous town brimming with taverns, Barrie has always been a deeply conservative community and just the mention of gambling was cause for an uproar.
They were known as mint machines, as that was the prize most commonly dispensed, but cigarettes or other small tokens might also be won. These machines were found in tobacco shops, billiard halls, hotels and corner stores all over Barrie by 1927.
These gaming machines operated in the still popular way. In December 1927, the Northern Advance described the process for those unfamiliar with the machines.
“When he pulls a lever, there is a grinding noise and three glass-enclosed strips of pictures of various fruits installed on the breast of the machine begin whirling around on the wheels on which they are mounted. The whirling stops and if a winning combinations of fruit pictures is produced, the pay-off is automatic, slugs falling out of the machine.”
The trouble began when it was learned that cash was sometimes given as a prize and that constituted illegal gambling. Police were quick in removing the devices and having their use banned but, within a year, they were back in a less flashy one-cent form and with different prizes.
By 1928, slot machine play had become extremely popular with the people of Barrie. Even without prizes, the pastime of playing pinball, hi-lo and other games for a penny was very attractive. By the early 1930s, playing the slot machines in local businesses was described as a full-on craze.
Eventually, slot machines, other than ones used strictly for the vending of stamps, chewing gum or candy, were outlawed completely in most of Canada. People had been complaining that their children
were spending all of their allowance and paper route money on these games in addition to getting an early taste of gambling.
Slot machines of the illegal cash prize variety had become very popular with another segment of society, the smash and grab brand of thieves. It wasn’t terribly difficult to snatch a slot machine from a store counter and access the money inside.
The Hanmer Brothers’ smoke shop at 45 Dunlop Street East was relieved of its slot machine on three different occasions by thieves.
Even when banned, they popped up again like mushrooms so the town of Barrie decided to tax and license them instead. In the end, it was a plea from the Protestant ministers of the town, who were concerned that the machines would be the ruination of our youth, which ended the fun run of the slot machine in Barrie.
In 1946, a new type of slot machine arrived in Barrie and quite a few citizens expressed their displeasure when these “penny pinching gadgets’ appeared in the downtown area. One local business man reminded his fellow citizens that voting carefully in the next municipal election would surely put an end to these devices. Yet the parking meters still remain.