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The Penny Arcade

 The Coin Operated Machine Information Site 

                                 The Mills Novelty CO,  Chicago




The Mills name enters the coin operated world on the 14th April 1891 when Mortimer Mills was granted a patent on improvements to a coin operated vending machine. Somewhere between 1891 and 1895 Mortimer founded the M.B.M Cigar vending Co using machines based on that earlier patent.


                                                 The Mills Cigar Vendor Patent                                      

In 1897 the company launched its first coin operated gambling machine the "Mills Owl". This floor standing cabinet machine featured a large  spinning disc with coloured panels and owls, the machine was a great success and Mills incorperated the Owl into its trade mark.


A  year later Mortimer sold the controlling interest in the business to his son Herbert Mills and the company name changed to The Mills Novelty Co.

The company continued to grow slowly until 1905 when they acquired the patent for the "Violano-Virtuoso" . This amazing coin operated violin player (there was also a popular model for home use) was a truly incredible machine invented by Henry Sandell who had  approached the Mills co in 1899 who appear to have backed his development of the machine leading to the patents being signed over to Mills at registration ,It was another 6 years before the machine was shown to the public. Other coin operated music players were added to the range around the same period.








A different  type of collaboration came about again in 1906 when Mills  simply stole a Charles Fey (the man generally credited with inventing the Modern three reel slot machine) three reel slot from a bar in San Francisco,took it to Chicago and took it apart to see how it worked.this resulted a year later in the  "Mills Liberty Bell". Fey hadn't(and never did) patent any part of his machines and Mills considered them fair game to copy. This was to be a common problem for the slot industry throughout the years not helped by the US Government's later  decision not to allow patents on slot machines as they were "not useful items". Ironically Fey himself had copied a machine made by co worker Gustav Schultze to get him started in the industry in the 1890's


                                   Charles Fey                                                Liberty Bell" Gum Fruit"

       By 1926 the company had moved to a larger factory in Fullaton Ave Chicago and was                                                 constantly updating its range of machines.


BY 1935 other joint ventures had produced jukeboxes,coin operated radios,gum machines and                                              the first cooler vendor for Coca Cola .

                        1939 Mills coke vendor (we have no photo of the 1935 model)

By this time the company was being run by Herbert's four sons and the family was very rich.

                 Below are a few of the more unusual and lesser known Mills products

                                                           The "Hoke" Snake

  This is one of the strangest and perhaps the rarest of the Mills one arm bandit range. 

  It is extremely rare, the last one sold went for $60,000. The additional mechanics were invented by Harry Hoke and the machine is known as a Hoke Snake. The idea was yet another attempt to fool the gambling laws into thinking the machine was a game of skill. On getting a winner the final "click" of the cycle that releases the coin slides will not happen until a steel ball is "pitched" into the mouth of the snake (ball catcher) at the top of the machine. Made 1936-38. One can be seen in the strangely  situated slot machine museum in San Francisco airport.





                                       Fragrance Sprayer                                   Electricity is Life Health Machine



                                   Bar bell lifter strength tester                               Vertical lift strength tester

                                                                                                                                               (note the Owl shaped dial surround)




                               Stereo Viewer                                          The "Jockey" trade Stimulator    

            (who could resist a title like that!)  

In 1940 the company raised the bar in slot machine design with the first Hi top model,this                        would remain their basic design until the end of the mechanical slot era.




During the war the company made  equipment for military use ( just one month before the USA entered the war Mills got an order for 320,000 40mm artillery shells) while still doing upgrades to their slot machines but was quick to switch production back to slots after the war.In 1946 the slot division was re branded as "Bell-O-Matic"



                          Early Bell-O-Matic                                                  Late Bell-O-Matic

In 1951 the industry was dealt a huge blow when a law was passed banning slot machines in all but four states in the US and the already financially troubled Mills industries  started to collapse . 

BY 1954 most of the Mills Industries  production was ice cream and drink vending machines and the company was taken over by  F.L.Jacobes co Ltd ,a car parts maker in Detroit. 

The last joint venture of the Mills company was a hot tinned food vendor for the Heinz company,this dispensed a tin of hot food,a tin opener and a spoon.

This venture was a disaster leading to two law suits ,Mills claimed $1.7 million from Heinz for machines they ordered but wouldn't take and Heinz claimed $750,000 for machines they had bought but didn't work correctly. Strangly it was the coin mech that was the problem,this had been designed in house by Mills.Even before the law suit was completed several Mills production sites had closed.






In the early 1960's Bell-o-matic was sold to American machine and science Inc who also bought O.D.Jennings Co ,they merged the two slot machine companies into TJM Corp which was  run by Tony Mills and his brother John.

TJM never got to grips with the electro mechanical style of slot machine Bally had revolutionised the industry with and  TJM ceased trading in the early 1980's

The "Mills novelty Co" name survives today as a small company making digital control systems for Violino-Virtuoso machines .




                              A selection of mills machines


Here are a selection of the Mills machines from the 1890's to the 1960's. Mills seem to have been very lapse in naming machines and much of the information has been lost, many of the names given below are those the machines are usually referred to today .                                          

The list below is far from complete, Mills were one of the first to recognise a slot machine fact that is still very true today,users get tired of machines quickly so their models  are many and varied,sometime including the early use of special features. We will add to the list when we can. For now..enjoy these 26 or click the green button at the top of the page for a more comprehensive list



                                           The Dewey                                                             The Silver Cup



                                          Poinsettia                                                              F.O.K Vendor



                                     Baseball Vendor                                                    Skyscrapper



                                      Golden Falls                                                      Diamond Front



                                   Horse Head Bonus                                                  Roman Head



                                 Bursting Cherry                                                                     War Eagle


              Roman Head with Dagger Vendor                                        Lion Head                     



                                       Extraordinary                                                               Page Boy

These two are actually the same model,the one on the right came to be know as the page boy after the eagle logo was replaced  during WW2 as being too Nazi in appearance 



                                          Castle Front                                                                     Extra Bell



                                                    The QT                                                     The Egyptian Bell                                             



                                               Jewel                                                                   Hi-Top(1952)

The Jewel was the first in the hi-top range and soon evolved into the classic version seen on the right


                                      Rare and rather nice, "Token Bell" 1948-49                                  


                                       Melon Front                                                        Bell-O-Matic




                     Rare Bell-o-Matic Console                        Late Bell-O-Matic "Compact"


    Rare and unusual Compact "Cadillac" 4 reel console



                                                         The Unique(and much sort after)

                                                                         Mills Lock & Key






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