Columnist contemplates value of rec room staples


When we put the coins in and make a snack or drink selection from a vending machine, we think of the mechanism -- some with lights and sound -- as a modern thing.

But vending devices go way, way back. To ancient Egypt, in fact.

History records the first coin activated vending "machine" dispensed holy water in Egyptian temples. It was invented by Heron of Alexandria about 50 CE.

In today's What's It Worth?, we'll look at an obscure modern popcorn vending machine and a classic fixture you'd think might have come from a saloon, bank lobby or railroad station.

Q. In clearing a relative's estate, we came across a Redskin Tobacco spittoon. It is metal and 10 inches tall. Is there any interest or value in this sort of thing or should we just throw it away? -- A. B. in Kennewick

A. Old spittoons have a lot of collector interest and can be quite valuable.

Among the most popular are porcelain and glass examples from the Victorian era that were made for use in the home.

Brass spittoon collectors today look for high-quality construction, heavy-gauge metal and famous company's advertisements.

It's the famous advertisement part that causes trouble. Every single spittoon we've ever seen carrying an ad for Pony Express Chewing Tobacco, Wells Fargo Bank, many different railroad lines or various states of the Confederacy are out-and-out fakes.

Redskin Chewing Tobacco is among that group of "fantasy" items. A fake is a copy of something that actually does exist. A fantasy item is something of which there is no original.

This spittoon is a fantasy piece and was designed either to be a purely decorative object or to fool the unwary buyer. The intent depends on how the seller describes the item. There is no evidence that Redskin, a real company, ever made, or had made for them, anything like this.

The base is copper on this well-known fraud, the upper part is light brass. It never would have been used on the floor of a saloon or train station; it is too lightweight to take the daily wear and tear.

Also, it has a very "tipsy" shape and would fall over easily -- not something you want in a spittoon!

There are thousands of these in the marketplace and on a really good day, and sold as a fantasy item, you might get $20 or $30.

Q. I was given this coin-operated "Infra Red Ray" popcorn machine and have looked on the internet but can't find any thing about it. Do you have any clue as to what year it was made? What color it needs to be and where I can find parts? -- Julia in Prosser

A. What you have is a vintage floor model vendor that "air popped" a bag of popcorn -- fresh -- when a coin activated the machine. The popping process took about a minute. This model could date as early as the 1940s and might also be as late as the 1960s.

We haven't been able to determine who made infrared popcorn machines. During their heyday, manufacturing rights seem to have changed hands from company to company. This popper is very similar to a number of other units made by various manufacturers, including Viking Tool and Machine and Vendotronics, both in New Jersey.

As to colors, this machine appears to originally have had a cream door and red cabinet. Many other combinations were available.

This popper seems to be in need of extensive exterior restoration -- the paint is in pretty bad shape -- and it may have unknown mechanical challenges as well.

That said, there is strong collector interest in all older vending machines and this example, if it could be fully restored, would certainly command a good price.

An infrared popcorn machine sold last year in an online auction for $2,700 (add about $350 for shipping) and another was purchased at the big Chicago vending machine show for $3,500.

* Terry Maurer, Tri-Cities personal property appraiser, is a member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. For possible use in a future column, direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What's It Worth? by email to

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