How’d that penny get inside the bottle
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    Auction Finds

    Checking your weight for a penny

    I was enjoying my healthy lunch at Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market recently when I looked up at the back side of a scale. “Stop,” it hollered in bold red letters. “Have you weighed yourself lately?”

    I hadn’t, so I kept reading. “Weigh now on this Computer Scale. What you should weigh (it showed two charts opposite each other). Doctors say weigh weekly. For beauty and health watch your weight. Deduct 5 lbs for clothes & shoes.”

    Deduct 5 pounds for garments? That was new to me, but I liked the way it sounded. I always felt that the heavy clothes I wore were contributing to the numbers on the scales in my bathroom and doctor’s office. I didn’t figure it was a whopping 5 pounds. Or was it? Was this machine just toying with me?

    Loboy penny scale made by Rock-Ola jukebox company of Chicago, circa 1930s.

    I didn’t check my weight on that scale, but it was interesting because it seemed that everywhere I turned lately, its cousin the penny scale was accosting me at auctions. Each time I saw one, I stopped in front of it, peered at its face and remembered the times I’d dropped a penny – or was it a nickel or a quarter? – in a slot.

    Most of us have done that and then groused when the scale bungled our weights. It was always wrong – probably needed to be re-calibrated – because no way were we as heavy as the scale indicated.

    The penny scales at auction all appeared to be from the early 20th century, tall and lean, some colored and one a natural wood. These were not the earliest machines, which were called lollipop scales with their circular heads and long slender bodies.

    I found differing accounts of when penny scales were first made in this country and who made them. One site said they came in 1885 via Great Britain. Another said it was Germany. Several said that the Watling Scale Co. in Chicago made the country’s first penny scales in the late 1880s, while National Scale Company was said to have made the first coin-operated scale.

    An expert and collector named Christopher K. Steele noted on his site that the penny scales, while a vending machine, was unlike other vending machines because you got a service for your penny. That seemed to change as companies tried to make the scales more enticing, spitting out photos of Hollywood stars, horoscopes, gum and candy, and designing them with pizazz.

    Circa 1930s Pace Bantam penny scale.

    Watling also made scales that told your fortune, as in this Gypsy scale that I found selling for about $6,000 on the web, along with some other scales from the early 20th century. Here’s a look at what one site said were cards dispensed with your fortune (for sale).

    Penny scales could be found in train and bus stations, at fairs, amusement parks and arcades; in bowling alleys, drug stores, department stores, restrooms, on sidewalks and more. Some are still being used. Their heyday was the 1930s and 1940s when people were slipping 10 billion pennies a year into them, according to Steele, whose collection of 200 scales has been exhibited widely. His earliest goes back to 1890 and the latest 1992.

    By the mid-20th century, penny scales were losing their appeal after people began buying their own bathroom scales.

    I wasn’t around when each of the scales sold, but the wooden one with the mirror, I learned, sold for $70 at auction. It was a 1930s Watling and was not in working condition. One website noted that mirrors on scales were used by women to check their lipstick and the seams on their stockings.

    Circa 1930s Watling penny scale.


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