Our favorite stores seem to have more self-service checkouts and fewer cashiers lately. Some of us balk at this disruption to our usual way of doing things and will stubbornly stand in line at the one-person checkout while others do our own scanning and bagging at the automated terminals.
I am slowly moving to the dark side and embracing new technology. I’m not sure what was holding me back in the first place – fear of new electronics, sympathy for workers no longer needed, or just changing lifelong practices?
About a hundred years ago there was a similar malaise with technological change in Barrie. Of course, it started somewhere else, but these things always ended up happening in our city.
The first of these slot machines was not what you might think. The Bell Telephone Company introduced its nickel-in-the-slot payphone system to Barrie customers in 1924.
Local newspapers carried mentions of similar innovations to coins in major centers. New York City had many soda water vending machines in the mid-1920s.
Of course, New York had been an early player in the automate sales game. Chewing-gum maker Thomas Adams first installed vending machines on railroad platforms across the city in 1888 to sell his Tutti-Fruiti gum and it was a huge success.
What really tainted the perception of all these new devices was the sudden introduction of a particular version of technology.
Despite its legendary reputation as a noisy town full of taverns, Barrie has always been a deeply conservative community and the mere mention of the game has caused an outcry.
They were known as coin machines, as this was the most commonly given out prize, but cigarettes or other small tokens could also be won. These machines were found in tobacco shops, pool halls, hotels and convenience stores all over Barrie in 1927.
These gambling 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 creaking noise and three glazed bands of images of various fruits installed on the chest of the machine begin to whirl on the wheels on which they are mounted. The whirlwind stops and if a winning combination of fruit pictures is produced, the win is automatic, with the slugs falling from the machine.
The trouble started when it was learned that the money was sometimes given as a prize and that this constituted illegal gambling. Police were quick to remove the devices and ban their use, but within a year they were back in less flashy one-cent form and with different prices.
By 1928 slot machine gambling had become extremely popular with Barrie residents. Even without prizes, the pastime of playing pinball, hi-lo and other games for a penny was very appealing. In the early 1930s, playing slot machines at local businesses was described as a craze.
Eventually, slot machines, other than those used strictly for the sale of stamps, chewing gum, or candy, were completely banned in most of Canada. People complained that their children
were spending all of their allowance and paper money on these games in addition to getting a taste of the game.
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’ smoking room at 45 Dunlop Street East has had its slot machine robbed three times by thieves.
Even when they were banned, they popped up like mushrooms, so the City of Barrie decided to tax and allow them instead. In the end, it was a plea from the city’s Protestant ministers, who feared that the machines were the ruin of our youth, that ended Barrie’s fun slot machine run.
In 1946, a new type of slot machine arrived in Barrie, and many citizens expressed their displeasure when these “penny-pinching gadgets” appeared downtown. A local businessman reminded his fellow citizens that voting carefully in the upcoming municipal elections would surely put an end to these devices. Yet the parking meters are still there.