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    Auction Finds

    A boxy cash register to keep employees honest

    The wooden box had seen better days. Someone had ruined its beautiful natural wood by painting it white, and now the aged paint was peeling in spots and the brass plate on top was tarnished.

    I could tell that the box was old but I had no idea what it was. The auction house staff apparently knew that we bidders would be dumbfounded, so someone schooled us (so the item would be saleable): “Primitive Cash Register.” That didn’t sound right; this box was much too simple and had too few gadgets to do anything as complex as figuring numbers.

    At the top right of the cover was a narrow window whose glass was askew, along with a small metal handle that had rusted. I pulled out the drawer and saw a series of small compartments that could have held coins and bills. Underneath the paint, the drawer pull looked like an animal’s head.

    autographic desk register

    The National Autographic Desk Register at auction. It needs restoration.

    Figuring there was more to this register than what I was seeing, I lifted the cover and found a simple metal mechanism inside, along with directions for using the “National Desk Autographic Register” and two cubbyholes.

    This autographic desk register was made in the 1890s by the National Cash Register Co., one of several companies that made them. The original autographic register was invented by James C. Shoup, who founded his own company in 1883 in Hoboken, NJ.

    They were called autographic because they required someone to actually write the amount of a sale on a piece of paper. They were designed to help merchants keep a record of all of their sales, and to keep their employees honest.

    autographic desk register

    The interior of the autographic desk register at auction, along with a decorative piece on the side.

    Some of the boxes were all metal, or wood and brass. Some had inkwells and decorative brass rails across the back. The register at auction was missing some of its parts.

    Here’s how the autographic register worked, according to the directions:

    A salesperson recorded a sale on a paper roll through the window, pressed buttons on a combination lock nearby and then pulled the lever. A bell rang, and the cash drawer automatically opened. The paper moved forward when the drawer was closed.

    These machines had layers of security. The employee had to press the right combination numbers in order for the drawer to open. There were three locks: one on the drawer, one to keep workers from taking the paper records and an internal lock that prevented the machine from working if it ran out of paper.

    autographic desk register

    The cash drawer and drawer pull on the autographic desk register at auction.

    National’s name has long been connected to cash registers, the first of which was invented around 1879. It allowed its inventor James Ritty to keep track of the number and amount of sales at his bar, where his employees were stealing money. His company was eventually sold to John H. Patterson, the man who made the National Cash Register Co. a familiar name.

    As for the value of autographic registers, one site noted that the machines are not necessarily collectible because they are not rare. I found several that had sold at auction over the last couple years for $190 and $200 in good condition. Another with an inkwell but needed refinishing sold for $85.

    autographic desk registers

    Right, an autographic desk register that sold at auction in 2008 for $200, and another that sold at auction for $85. It has an inkwell at the far top right.

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