written/non-written things by me (from 2005-2008)

Tuesday, November 20, 1990

Pushing the Right Buttons:

A tale of Vending Machines and their Social Products
By Hannah Pierce-Carlson

Introduction: Thirsty, Hungry, and Conveniently Satisfied

There it is in the dimly lit employee lounge after hours. No sound but the squeaks on the linoleum and the whirring business that allures you to it; and there is the glow emanating from the machine whose promise to refresh is emblazed across its Plexiglas belly, a tearing can of Coke product thrust sideways into a exploding mountain of ice. You insert and press, there is a moment, a thud, and you receive. How many times have we transacted in this way, countless times? This is not a monetary-product transaction, not just. Perhaps this is a cultural experience. Perhaps, being so esoteric to suggest, this transaction is a metaphorical gesture for the taken-for-granted availability and accessibility of everything we consume. There is the compulsion to transact with the vending machine, after all its so convenient, and to receive from its mysterious delivery mechanisms its generous, yet necessarily limited, bounty of delicious, practical, and sometimes uncanny products. The transaction with the vending machine is a fetishistic experience for the consumer, gratifying in its self-serve autonomy, anonymous and removed from human interaction, and instantaneously rewarding. In this brief history, I discuss the development of vending machines and their cultural and social impacts.

A Brief Vending History
The development of vending machines and their array of vending products is a story messy with a multiplicity of different innovations, too many to discuss in this paper. However, it is curious that with all of these early vending machine innovations the technology could have taken many different directions in its evolution, yet alas we know them popularly as dispensers of soda and snacks only.

The vending machine era is dated around the 1880s, but the earliest reference to coin-operated devices goes back to the Greek mathematician Heron in 62 A.D. In his book, Pneumatika, he describes a vending device for sacrificial water in the Egyptian temples. There is no evidence that the device became widely used. It was not until the seventh century that the notion of vending machines was revisited. Snuff and tobacco vendors appeared in English taverns and inns during 1615. The machines were primarily innovated by the British and Western Europeans. 1857 marks the first automatic selling device patent in Britain. The technology was imported to the Colonies and U.S. patent for W.H. Fruen’s “Automatic Drawing Device” was issued in 1884. The technology was not dissimilar from Heron’s holy water dispensing machine though it was never produced in quantity. Much of the early innovation was driven by the goal to combat misuse, slugs, and users trying to “beat” the machine. One of the original patented inventors Percival Everitt observed in his patent application that:

“It has been found in practice that although the apparatus is perfectly successful when not designedly misused, articles such as paper, orange-peel, an other rubbish have been maliciously placed in the slit provided for the admission of the coin, and that in consequence the channel provided for the passage of the coins from the slit became blocked” (Schreiber 13).

The real story of American vending began in 1888 when the Thomas Adams Gum Company introduced the very first vending machines to the United States. The machines were installed on the elevated subway platforms in New York City and sold Tutti-Fruiti gum. In the early 1920's, the first automatic vending machines started dispensing sodas into cups. In 1926, an American inventor named William Rowe invented a cigarette-vending machine. The Rowe Corporation became the largest manufacture of cigarette vendors and cigarettes became the premier vending item (Schreiber 19).

Despite the economic hardship of the Depression, the 1930s was a very lucrative time for the coin-operated machine industry (43). Many of the developments of the thirties had to await the conclusion of WWII. The introduction of VMs into the industrial plants created a new market niche for the products. In 1942, the War Production Board suspended the manufacture of new vending machines and production was turned to materials for the armed forces. During this vending production hiatus the operating companies struggled to keep going. As the war effort deepened the challenge to operating companies intensified until industrial plant mangers, who were at first skeptical of VMs distracting workers, discovered that the vending machine was an invaluable tool for keeping workers on the job longer. A quick candy bar or soft drink kept workers “refreshed.” The demand for vending services was more than the industry could satisfy. This boom persisted though out the war and after it (Schreiber 44). In the work place the VM was being used for a real social effect, to keep the workforce satisfied enough to extract that much more labor out of them.

Not all coin-op devices were embraced precisely because of their suspected of feared social effects. Amusement devices such as slot (gambling) machines and pinball games enjoyed a boom more so than any other amusement machines. However, community protests against the gambling machines in some places led to area bans. As we will see coin-ops and vending machines will have repeated encounters with community protest. The vending industry like most convenience technologies of the ‘era of innovation’ has an interesting history of ambitious profiteering, and often at the expense of the well being of its consumers.

The industry dreamed big and experimented its way into various market niches, the technology itself, especially the goods being sold, have hardly changed over the past decades. Instead, the industry in its stagnant technological development experienced growth by becoming culturally pervasive, more so than being innovative. In the early days, vending technology was touted by the industry to bring a revolution in the retailing and distribution of products, not to mention their immense advertising value (Seagrave 44). At a 1947 annual National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA) convention, Nathan Cummings, president of the wholesale and retail firm Consolidated Grocers Corporation said, “It is possible to foresee completely automatic grocery supermarkets and automatically operated service stations” (Seagrave 122). Indeed, the technology could have afforded vast possibilities in the dispersion of food and other products not just relegated to soda, snacks, and cigarettes. However, these were the innovations to be capitalized upon because they proved most profitable.

The appeal of VMs to product vendors is in their labor cost cutting, real estate saving, invisible-seller attraction. I happened across a car wash retail Internet site called “Windtrax” that sums up the benefits of the vending machine quite accurately, “The vending machine is never late for work and won't ask for holidays off” (www.windtrax.com). Conventional retailers at first opposed the technology for its obvious elimination of human labor. However, Cummings argued that VMs would prove to help human sales people rather than replace them. Today, it seems virtually incalculable the effect vending machines have had on employment in any industry remotely related to the services provided so cheaply by automatic-seller machines. Imagine if each VM anywhere were a store employed by humans. That would amount to a lot of jobs. Granted, it would also equate to a lot (too much) of retail real estate.

Vending technology remained steadfastly “primitive” for much of its early popularization after WWII. The so-called “four C’s” (cigarettes, coffee, cola, and candy) dominated the vending niche market in the 1950s (Seagrave 47). Cigarettes remained the dominant item in the vending industry during this period. In the 1960s to 1985 the vending industry capitalized on particular locations. Plants and offices, with their captive employees grew more and more important as VM sites. Many companies began to eschew the usual live-service cafeteria and restaurants for the substantially cheaper VMs to provide food for their employees. A 1970 account reported that VM operators had to pay a 10 percent commission to the plant or office utilizing the machines (Seagrave 182). Therefore the industry turned its attention to one its most lucrative locations, schools.

The presence of VMs in school cafeterias has become an increasingly controversial issue since their introduction in the 1960s:

“The vending industry was making some strides in 1964 in the $200-billion-a-year school-lunch area, where banks of VMs had replaced hot meals in many high schools and colleges. That year, 107 Southern California schools converted from cafeterias to vending machine” (Seagrave 182).

The US government, state governments, most boards of education, and organized food service employees resisted the introduction of VMs. The National School Lunch Act, which offered cash and foodstuff subsidies to schools in return for a non-profit hot lunch program for children, was offered as the legal underpinning to keep VMs out. The industry led by the leading VM manufacturer, Vendo, used low-key persuasion to ease their way into schools while still keeping the federal subsidy. The machines entered the school but only on the stipulation that snack and drink machines be hidden in teacher’s lounges. In 1970, the USDA agreed to amend the national School Lunch Program to allow vending and food service companies to participate. Three years later, school lunch officials decried VMs that dispensed junk food, which, they claimed, threatened to undermine the school lunch program:

“Regulations that would ‘result in the exploitation of children’s nutritional needs by people whose interest is profits’ were then being drawn up by the Department of Agriculture to permit normal use of the machines” (Seagrave 183).

Shortly after the regulations passed it was noted in one Santa Fe junior high school that participation in the lunch program dropped from 350 to 235 and the breakfast program had been cut from 80 to 40 after the installation of the machines (184). Today, a battle continues in many communities across the country to ban VMs delivering unhealthy junk foods and sodas to children in schools (CNNAccess). This battle is not unlike the fight to ban cigarette vendors from the reach of minors.

In 1990, US Health Secretary Louis Sullivan urged the state governments to enact new laws discouraging the sale of cigarettes to minors. One of his suggested provisions was to ban cigarette VMs, the star product of the industry. Municipalities soon affirmed the right bans the machines. The industry fearful of losing its profitable cigarette stronghold developed remote-control devices, but they were dismissed as to cumbersome to implement (Seagrave 184). In 1995, President Bill Clinton announced his initiative to combat the ‘epidemic’ of smoking teens, which included a proposal to ban all cigarette vendors. The industry reacted with predictable outrage. They first argued that such a ban would have little impact on reducing teen smoking. Secondly, the cigarette ban posed to eliminate the industry:

“Representing cigarette VM operators in New Jersey, attorney Keith Biebelberg declared ‘You would be closing down an entire industry, causing massive unemployment. Many of these companies can’t stay afloat without the cigarettes vending aspect of their business’ “ (Seagrave 195).

Clinton backed down from a complete ban on cigarette VMs, though in 1997 he did approve US FDA rules that outlawed VMs in youth prone areas, such as grocery stores, restaurants, but still allowed them in bars, casinos, and establishments that barred underage patronage. Once cigarette machines faded in profitability, cola VMs grew. Near the end of the 1960s 12-ounce cans became the standard size for the vending industry. Over a period of 20 years can VMs replaced returnable bottle vendors and grew to represent 95% of the soda pop vending market (Seagrave 197). With the advent of the 16- and 20-ounce PET bottles soda vending became slightly more profitable for two reasons. The lighter weight, more durable plastic was easier to transport; plus, there was a sharp increase in the price of aluminum. In 1996, Coca-Cola beefed up its vending program by redesigning the machines and individualizing advertising graphics, trying to give the VMs a marketing edge:

“VM manufacturer Royal Vendors was making Troy Aikman- and Emmet Smith- (star players for the Dallas Cowboys professional football team) identified machines for Coca-Cola for use in the Dallas area. According to Ray Kohlepp, vice president of Royal, the Aikman machines had been outselling regular machines by a ratio of three to one. The company also made machines for Universal Studios that features Bugs Bunny graphics” (Seagrave 198).

Clearly, the VMs are living up to their promise as advertising beacons. This is what is so dangerously alluring to children who are held captive in schools that are becoming more and more corporatized and saturated by brand name junk foods. The soda vendors, most notably Coca-Cola is in the business of exclusive contracts in schools:

“In a move that gave it access to more than 300,000 students, Coca-Cola Bottling outbid Pepsi to win an exclusive three-year deal with the Toronto District School Board to sell soft drinks and juice in its schools…Some 200 Pepsi machines had to be removed…Critics opposed corporate control to that extent as well as the replacement of government funding with corporate money. They were also opposed to the spread of sugar- and caffeine-laden products with limited nutritional value to school children” (Seagrave 217-218).

Children are being bombarded with appeals to consume everywhere they look. Now the technology is becoming even more insidious, pervasive, and perhaps intrusive.
Currently, VMs are undergoing a “smart” makeover, promising “wireless” vending. One Coca-Cola technology involved various cashless systems, including the use of a cell phone to order a soft drink:

“A customer used his cell phone to dial a number on the VM, punched in a code to purchase a Coke, with the charge appearing on the customer’s next phone bill” (Schreiber 232).
This intelligent vending is slated for “the future” and is only to affect a limited number of machines, but one must ask what is the benefit of hooking-up with the soda machine? Clearly, this is a novelty device for the sake of drawing in more consumers. However, Coca-Cola has innovated a very different ‘smart’ machine that may accomplish the opposite effect.

In 2000, Coca-Cola tested a controversial vending machine that would raise prices on a hot, humid day and lower them when temperatures fell. With such innovations as adjusting prices based on demand at a specific time, such machines appear to only be the first of many innovations by the nation's soft-drink manufacturers in an effort to exploit the highly profitable vending machine market. The vending industry today is taking the ‘wired’ approach to dispensing technology. One article on new vending technology reports excitedly that:
At the US vending industry's annual convention last month, the buzzword was interactivity: machines that can chat with mobiles, email the home office when they run out of Doritos, flash the latest CNN headlines. All of it is happening now, albeit on a limited basis” (Stevens 2002).
Surely, if the VM is to become a new ‘connected’ form of media in which one can receive their news as they fatten their phone bill and gut, then it is shockingly clear that this technology is not just a machine, but a significant cultural object. The vending machine is as ubiquitous as the billboard and television and it products are just as alluring. Our interactions with it are as distracting and impulsive as any other consumer landmarks that blight the cultural landscape.

The Right Buttons, Wrong Products?
Consider how pervasive vending machines are in the public environment. If one is not in plain view I sometimes feel I can sense their presence, just around the corner maybe? Lo and behold, there usually is one. They are “convenient” stores that fit anywhere and, apparently, belong everywhere. My high school had a whole slew of them in the cafeteria lined up along a long wall. During lunch the lines to get soda and junk food were usually longer than the hot-lunch lines. It should be no surprise to most that there was a substantial decline in participation in the national School Lunch Program with the installation of VMs in school cafeterias in the 1970s. Now kids get their “meals” from the “silent salesman” as it was first referred to in the earliest vending advertisements (Schreiber 9). What good silent salesmen they are. “Last year Americans bought more than 21 billion cans of soft drink from vending machines, 10 billion candy bars and 4 billion hot drinks. All told, it came to nearly $US41 billion ($72 billion) worth of products. (In 1960, the figure was $US2.5 billion. In 1990, it was $US22 billion.)” (Stevens 2002). A bag of Doritos, Skittles, and a Mountain Dew, might be a typical lunch for an American kid these days. How obvious it should be that we are a nation of fat kids. Surely these machines have changed not only what we eat, but also the way we eat, how we think about eating, the accessibility of food and other consumer goods, and the pervasiveness of so-called choices. We have seen that because of their advertising value vending machines are alluring to children, especially when they are held captive in the classroom. The four Cs have proven to be the most profitable for the vending industry, but this is not because vending machines were destined to deliver nothing but junk food and sodas. On the contrary, the technology could have gone in many directions, yet the same products persist because very large product companies would rather make a convenient profit than think of the small, though rather significant, impacts that vending machines have had on our culture. Their hyper-pervasiveness speaks to our over-the-top expectation to be conveniently serviced wherever we go. The vending machine beckons to the consumer, and asks him/her to be impulsive because, heck, why not it is so easy to give in, to insert and receive.


Image from "http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~williams/rhe306_04/table_o_guys/vending1.jpg"

“Nutrition Advocate: Vending Machines fail students.” CNNAccess. 15 Sept 2003

“Vending Machines Grow Up: Candy Bars and Soda Make Way for Movies, Live Bait and Even Prescription Drugs.” Washington Post. 27 July 2003

Schreiber, G.R. A Concise History of Vending in the U.S.A. Chicago: Vend, 1961.

Stevens, Liz. “In the Slot.” New York Times. 15 Nov. 2002

Seagrave, Kerry. Vending Machines: An American Social History.
London: McFarland & Company, 2002.

Saltman, Kenneth J. Collateral Damage: Corporatizing Public Schools-A Threat to Democracy. Lanham: Rowman &Littlefield Publishers, 2000.

Sunday, November 11, 1990

School for Correction of Ways in the Plains

Matt made it for me for but a mere moonpie plus a hug! Thanks!

Thursday, November 01, 1990


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My name is Hannah Pierce-Carlson