Ask About Antiques/Penny Gumball Machines:Vintage Gumball Machines Sell for Sweet Prices

by Budd A. Moore, Ed.D.


It’s still common to go into a bank or other building open to the public and see a couple of gumball machines sitting near the door, waiting for a child with an extra minute and an extra penny. Although the first gum was sold from a vending machine in the 1880s, the gumball machine as we now think about it was first introduced in 1907 - dispensing round gumballs for one cent.

Many companies got into the business of both making the machines, and licensing operators to set them up and keep them refilled. Vintage gumball machines make great display pieces, and collectors of mechanical contraptions know that some machines can bring hundreds, or even thousands, at auction.

The most fragile part of a typical gumball machine is the glass globe that holds and displays the multi-colored balls. While broken globes are often replaced, and restoration doesn’t destroy the value of a vintage machine, dedicated collectors pay the most for original machines in excellent condition, with original parts.

In some cases, the parts are so rare that even a machine casing can command big bucks - the outside case for a Pulver Kola-Pepsin gum machine, with some wear and no internal workings, recently captured $1,878 on eBay. Machines made by Columbus are not in short supply on eBay - one vintage nickel machine recently sold for $610, and the same seller got $482 for a similar machine from the 1930s, with a replacement globe. A restored Columbus model “A” machine, which dispenses both gum and peanuts, recently fetched the seller $382, and a 1920s Columbus 1-cent machine captured $250.

Another big name was the Ford Gum and Machine Co., which made gum machines and gum from the early 1920s until the late 1960s. One Ford machine, probably from the 1920s, recently sold for $150; a more modern Ford fetched $128.

Some collectors might like the machines that combined a gumball dispenser with a baseball card dispenser in one rectangular box. Two of these recently appeared on eBay; one, made by Oak Mfg. Co., sold for $350, including four 1956 Topps baseball cards. Another fetched a winning bid of $281.

THE FORD STORY

Back in 1913, twenty-year old Ford Mason was groping for the bottom rung of the ladder to success. He was an itinerant roofing salesman who spent spring, summer and early fall traveling in horse and buggy over the winding country roads of western New York State. But he was idle during the winter because nobody repaired barn roofs in cold weather.

Looking for work that winter of 1913, Ford met a man engaged in the odd business of operating vending machines for chewing gum. The first such machine had been invented only a few years before, and just a handful of men had ventured into the gum machine business. Ford immediately sensed the opportunity for which he had been searching. He borrowed the money to lease 102 machines from a manufacturer, and placed the machines in the stores and shops of Hornell and other communities in western New York State. Then Ford spent the winter collecting pennies from his machines and filling them with gum. “It was fun,” Ford recalls, “to try to figure out which locations would be the most productive.”

Ford went back to the more orthodox business of selling roofing as soon as April showers washed the winter’s ice from the back country roads. Each succeeding winter he reentered the gum business and as Ford gained more experience he became convinced that the penny gumball could be parlayed into big business.

It would be a full-time job, however, because the newborn industry was thoroughly unprincipled. Most gum machine operators were fly-by-nighters, more interested in making immediate profits than in satisfying customers. Vending machine gum was so poor that most people would buy only once and never again waste a penny. Also, machines often took coins and then failed to deliver merchandise. Ford realized that these conditions would have to be overcome, and he was smart enough to recognize that success awaited the first businessman who would give the people their money’s worth. Here was a challenge that intrigued the young man and roused his sense of decency. He would make good gum! He would make reliable machines! He would give the public a square deal! So Ford quit the roofing business to devote all his energy to selling gum.

Ford’s father, a Baptist minister, was highly pleased with his son’s decision. And soon after Ford began his crusade for better business ethics, Reverend Mason said: “Make your own machines, my boy, and share your profits with God.”

Moore, Ed.D., is a specialist in the valuation of antique and collectable objects of the last 100 years. He is an educator, counselor, and avid antique enthusiast. He has been a collector of antique American Art Pottery and has been a dealer for over 20 years. He is familiar with nearly all lines of American Art Pottery, twentieth century glassware, Art Deco, and Art Nouveau categories. If you have a question about antiques or collectibles, you can e-mail him at buddm4cnsl@comcast.net or drop him a letter at 8864 Lorford Drive, Chambersburg, PA 17201-9335. An answer to your question may appear in a subsequent column.