Clean lines and chic functionality may be the main draws of perennially popular midcentury furniture, but the era has also thrown up a more unexpected genre for collectors: vintage vending machines. Brightly coloured and branded, high-quality examples from the 1950s and ’60s that once dispensed drinks and sweets, as well as more esoteric offerings at petrol stations and grocery stores have more than doubled in price in the past decade.
The vending machine wasn’t actually invented in the 1950s; the first commercial coin-operated postcard vendor was introduced in London in the early 1880s, and the Thomas Adams Gum Company first brought vending machines to the US in 1888, proffering his Tutti-Frutti gum on New York subway platforms. However, it’s the midcentury devices, often displaying a kitsch kind of Americana, that are adding a pop of retro-cool fun to contemporary homes, not only across the US but also Europe, Australia and Asia.
“They have an incredibly iconic look,” says Alexander Walder-Smith, owner of Surrey’s Games Room Company, whose father installed vending machines on US airbases in the UK after the second world war. “Clients love that they take them back to a bygone era.” Perhaps most iconic are the red-and-white Coca-Cola machines, of which Walder-Smith has several versions. One (£9,750) from 1957 stocks 81 bottles, while a more unusual 1968, 56-bottle Buvez (£6,850) was made for the French market in a sleeker, boxier shape. All are given “mint nut-and-bolt restorations” and shiny new paint jobs; they are also rejigged to vend quarter bottles of champagne, beer and mineral water as well as soft drinks.
One of Walder-Smith’s restorations sits “on the side of a mountain” in the sleepy Himalayan hilltop station of Mussoorie, a town famous for its cascading waterfalls and Tibetan temples and home to Sanjay Narang, president of hospitality group Mars Enterprise. “Being the age of 52 myself, I’m a big fan of Coke and all retro things,” he says. “It’s a real conversation piece in our outdoor dining area.”
Another popular location for these machines is a “man cave”, says dealer Bob Brown, who runs Red Baron Antiques in Atlanta, Georgia, and has a fully operational late-1960s Coca-Cola machine ($3,750) that will dispense a chilled Coke – or a long-necked beer – for a dime. “They have a nostalgic appeal that often attracts older clients, but they are being bought by young homeowners too.” Walder-Smith suggests buyers also like the sense of theatre: “A host can give guests a dime each to have a go. There’s something pleasing about pushing down the handle and feeling the mechanics working before pulling out a perfectly chilled drink.”
The machines were made by a number of manufacturers – top names include Vendorlator and Cavalier – and were, of course, commandeered by other soft drinks brands such as 7UP and Dr Pepper. Since these other brands were produced in smaller numbers than Coke, prices can be higher. PepsiCo machines, for example, generally cost 10 per cent more than Coke ones, says Brown, who often ships these striking blue versions to New York and California – while Walder-Smith, who has a 1957 Vendo 81 Pepsi machine for £12,500, finds them popular with Chelsea football fans. The Games Room Company has a wonderful bright-yellow 1950 Royal Crown Cola number (£12,750), and a rare 1957 Dr Pepper 81-bottler (£15,000) in a “Farrow & Ball-like green”.
The allure does not stop at soda vendors; vintage cigarette machines with their mechanical pull knobs are also sought-after. Brown currently has a somewhat futuristic-looking American example ($2,100) from 1935, while Walder-Smith has a 1950s version (£3,600) that once dispensed John Player cigarettes in train stations for a sixpence and today functions as a drinks cabinet. Sweets machines, meanwhile, can fetch as much as $9,000, especially if they light up, says Brown. Red Baron recently sold an unusual 1965 piece for $2,250, while GameRoomAntiques.com has a mint-green, mirrored candy machine from the 1940s-50s – the Stoner 180, for $4,495 – as well as a couple of 1940s-50s U-Select-It machines with rotating carousels for $2,995 each.
Across the Atlantic, Vienna’s Galerie Zeiträume carries an unusual 1960s Pez dispenser (€3,800) in an upbeat yellow that’s fully restored and operational with a schilling. It hails from the collection of Rupert Wiesinger, owner of a removals company in Linz, Austria, who has collected vintage vending machines for over 30 years. “I have between 50 and 80 – I’m not quite sure at the moment. I have drinks machines and one for Wrigley’s chewing gum, but 90 per cent of people want Pez machines in their homes,” says Wiesinger, who has turned his collecting into a small business. “I’ve even got a vending machine that tells your fortune.” Similarly esoteric machines that crop up from time to time include a 1940-1950 American horoscope machine with a spinning globe and astrological chart to select your zodiac sign, which recently sold for £2,807 on 1stdibs, while a gold-painted version from the 1940s with lights, a zodiac dial and fortune-reading cards is for sale at $1,200 from Ohio dealer Vintage Findz. Its paintwork may be in need of restoration, but its contemporary appeal is undeniable.