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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 incorporated the Owl into its trademark.


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 1890s


                                   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 1934 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



                                   Barbell 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.


   This rather nice machine is indeed VERY rare, quite possibly the only one ever made. It was designed by Joe Buric the head designer at Mils around the time of his retirement in 1940/41. Most likely a prototype or reliability test machine it never went into production(most likely because of the USA entering the war and Mills switching to war production). Not as small as the vest pocket it was still very small at only 11". It used a few ideas from other companies like Groetchen  and other features used in trade stimulators of the time as well as a large part of the vest pocket. Perhaps the last of the classic pre-war design

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 they did not produce any new slot machines during the war years but was quick to switch production back to slots after the war. In 1946 the slot division was rebranded 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 lawsuits, 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. Strangely it was the coin mech that was the problem, this had been designed in house by Mills. Even before the lawsuit 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 electromechanical style of slot machine Bally had revolutionised the industry with and  TJM ceased trading in the early 1980s

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






                            This amazing film is a 30 min tour of all departments of the Mills factory in 1935

                              A selection of mills machines


Here is 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 was one of the first to recognize a slot machine fact that is still very true today, users get tired of machines quickly so their models are many and varied, sometimes 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



                                                 Melon Bell                                                        Bursting Cherry   

       Although a failure and short-lived the "Melon Bell" holds a place in slot machine history

  It was the first-ever machine to introduce the Melon to the list of slot symbols. A lot of effort went into the case design, the large jackpot window was supposed to depict a bursting Melon, however, this turned out not to be obvious to the potential customers, so much so the company produced an advertising flyer pointing it out(see below). The company also took the unusual step in those days of commissioning research by "a prominent psychologist" as to what was men's favorite color, the result of the research was, unlikely as it seems, ... violet (??). The machine shown above is in the original color!! The company had high hopes for the machine but it never happened. The double sized jackpot was too large, needing $10 of coins to fill it (a lot of money at the time), it was also hand loaded AND attendant paid (the player had to call the attendant who then unlocked the jackpot which dropped into the payout tray, Mills thought this would be a big plus, it was not).

Within a year the machine was fazed out and revamped as the much more popular "Bursting cherry" with the top jackpot area removed making the jackpot smaller and displaying a large cherry, and so the unlikely idea of a bursting cherry now makes more sense as a bursting Melon(well a little bit)


            "Melon Bell" flyer showing that the jackpot window is supposed to depict a melon


          This,not so politically correct, company flyer introduced the new Melon symbol 





              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 known as the page boy after the eagle logo was replaced  during WW2 as being too Nazi in appearance 



                                          Castle Front                                                                     Extra Bell



    In 1939 Mills introduced another new twist to enhance player interest, the single cherry payout, before this two cherries were the standard lowest payout, The single cherry was a big success and by 1941 Jennings had followed suit. Initially paying 3 coins the single cherry later dropped to 2 coins, which considering it actually costs you a coin to win it is pretty stingy.

The first machine to use the single cherry was the "Chrome Bell" (know by collectors as the diamond front")



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                                                    The QT                                                     The Egyptian Bell  


                     FOK "double eagle"                                                             War Eagle                                                 



                                               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           Surely a sign that the company was                                                                                                                           losing  touch with the market is the strangely                                                                                                          themed  "Bucket of Blood" machine from 1963     The tiny "Vest Pocket"   



                                                         The Unique(and much sort after)

                                                                         Mills Lock & Key






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