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The Scrivener: Spending A Penny

Brian Barratt recalls the excitement, the fun, the relief - and yes, the worry - engendered by spending a penny.

On the footpath outside the local Italian bakery there's one of those tall colourful plastic dispenser things with children's toys and novelties. You choose what you would like, put $2 or $3 in the slot, and out it pops. I say 'tall' because some kids have to stand on tiptoe to see what is in the upper two sections. And then you hear calls of 'Mum!' or 'Dad!'. It is a child magnet.

Until recently, at another shopping centre, there was different and very colourful child magnet in the form of a large glass covered cabinet with a crane and an array of toys. I suppose that was at least $2 in the slot. And I never saw the crane grab anything when a child tried to manipulate it. The crane grabber was too shiny and weak, and the toys were too fluffy or slippery to grasp. I wonder if the manufacturers are required to demonstrate to some authority or other that it is actually possible to have a success?

It was the same in the 1940s when it cost only a penny to have a go. The more primitive affair in those days was equally inept at grabbing and you never won anything. But there were lots of other penny-in-the-slot machines to enjoy when you went for a holiday at the seaside. Some of them showed every sign of having been made in pre-War years but most kids didn't know that.

You could put your penny in the slot, place your hand on a very special magic plate, stare at the not-too-lifelike but mysterious lady in the box, Madame Something-of-other, and within a few seconds she delivered your fortune on a little card. Furthermore, it actually looked as if it had been freshly printed for you. Exciting stuff.

This was the era of automata (automatons), mechanical replicas of little people doing things. Long before robots and the electronic age, they were operated by clockwork, and very clever they were, too. The little boy in me fondly recalls The Haunted House, The Execution, The Ghostly Graveyard, and such thrilling horrors. Away from the funfair and seaside pier, far more complex and remarkable automata were made, such as the Orange Tree which is displayed by the great stage magician Paul Daniels:

There is a very good video clip of a simpler non-clockwork version, showing how it operates, here:

The renowned magician John Nevil Maskelyne (18391917) was a specialist at creating automata, such as Psycho, the whist player; Zoe the artist; Fanfare, the cornet player; and Labial, the trombonist. These wondrous creations were not entirely automatic some very clever remote control was involved.

He also invented a penny-in-the-slot device which millions upon millions of people have used. It gave rise to the euphemism 'to spend a penny'. Yes, it was attached to the doors of cubicles in public toilets.

The little boy in me does not fondly recall a penny-in-the-slot public toilet which I visited when I was old enough to go by myself. I was locked in. The door would not open. Not for me, anyway. I wasn't a tree-climbing or toilet-climbing child so I just sat there feeling confused and miserable until my father eventually came looking for me and spent another penny to release me from imprisonment. Thank goodness there were Haunted Houses and Ghostly Graveyards to cheer me up.

Copyright Brian Barratt 2013

You can see photos and videos of some old penny-in-the-slot machines on these sites:





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For more of Brian's columns visit http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

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