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Ohio Collector's Vintage Penny Scales Represent Early Vending Machines

  • Ted Landphair

In his artist's studio, Christopher Steele strikes a rakish pose among his collection of vintage penny scales – some dispense fortunes and trinkets

In his artist's studio, Christopher Steele strikes a rakish pose among his collection of vintage penny scales – some dispense fortunes and trinkets

Ohio Collector's Vintage Penny Scales Represent Early Vending Machines

Ohio Collector's Vintage Penny Scales Represent Early Vending Machines

At this time of year when, everywhere we look, Americans are tempted by fattening holiday treats, many of us are resolving to lose weight in the New Year.

So stepping on a scale is no fun unless you're the Columbus, Ohio, artist who has hopped onto thousands of them over the past 38 years and loved every moment of it.

Christopher Steele collects scales. Not the ordinary bathroom models on which we must suck in our bellies in order to look down and read.

He has traveled the country, buying more than 200 vintage penny scales which are the heavy, upright kind that were once a fixture on street corners and in stores, train stations and public restrooms across America. Of course, the scales in many ladies' rooms were often deliberately set to record readings two or three pounds lighter than true weight in an appeal to vanity.

The exhibit's name, The American Weigh, is a play on words

In his artist's studio, Christopher Steele strikes a rakish pose among his collection of vintage penny scales – some dispense fortunes and trinkets

In his artist's studio, Christopher Steele strikes a rakish pose among his collection of vintage penny scales – some dispense fortunes and trinkets

Beginning in February, Steele will exhibit 50 classic models in the Lazarus Building in Columbus. This was once the kind of lavish downtown department store where one would find these heavy, cast-iron scales.

Penny scales were the first vending machines. Most not only gave you your weight but also disbursed candy or gum, or cards with horoscope readings, trivia quizzes and even pictures of Hollywood stars.

Vending machine companies placed and maintained most of the public scales, splitting the profits with those who owned the spaces.

Some of the scales have novelty appeal

Some of the scales were novelty items; this one, fashioned after a once-popular soft drink bottle was built in Toledo, Ohio, in 1949

Some of the scales were novelty items; this one, fashioned after a once-popular soft drink bottle was built in Toledo, Ohio, in 1949

Christopher Steele says that in the 1930s, at the height of penny scales' popularity, before their price rose to a quarter and before cheap bathroom scales were available for every home, Americans dropped more than 10 billion pennies into these colorful machines each year.

Did we say colorful? Some of Steele's machines are shaped like soda bottles, gas pumps and the Mr. Peanut advertising character.

People collect all sorts of things from thimbles to twine. But why penny scales? "I love fine design, Americana and mechanical things," Christopher Steele says.

One can still find a few penny scales, costing a quarter or even 50 cents, in places like taverns and truck stops. They're a novelty, no longer corner landmarks. This time of year, maybe that's just as well.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.

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