Mills Novelty Company
From 1890 all the way through 1950, Mills Novelty Company was considered to be the largest manufacturer in the world of arcade, gambling, slot machines, violin player machines (the Mills Violano), other automatic music playing instruments, early vending machines, industrial compressors, etc. Over the next few years Mills Novelty Company produced many internal documents, photos, advertising catalogs, and movies, some of which are solely for the purpose of documenting its fabulous history.
The Mills Novelty Company, Incorporated of Chicago, was regarded once as the world’s leading manufacturer of coin operated machines, including slot machines, vending machines, and jukeboxes, in the United States. Between about 1905 and 1930, the company’s main products comprised the Mills Violano Virtuoso and its ancestors, celebrated machines that automatically played a violin and, shortly after 1909, a piano. By the late 1930s, vending machines were being installed by Mills Automatic Merchandising Corporation of New York.
By the year 1944 the name of the company had changed to Mills Industries, Incorporated. The slot machine division was then owned by Bell-O-Matic Corporation.
The father of the Mills Novelty Company is Mortimer Mills. He was granted United States patent 450,336 on April 14, 1891 for a serious improvement in apparatus that was being coin-operated. The improvement allowed the purchaser to select the product being sold and manipulate it so that it was carried to the point of delivery. Focusing on the devices covered by the patent, Mortimer Mills founded the M.B.M. Cigar Vending Company sometime between 1891, and 1895. Over half of a century later, the company would promote itself as having been founded in 1889, two years before the date of the patent, and by H.S. Mills rather than his father. In 1897, the company launched the Mills Owl, which was the first mechanical upright cabinet slot machine. The machine’s design included a circle of owls perched on a lithographed tin wheel. The machine was a great success and that became the company’s main trademark.
In November 1955, Mills Industries, Inc. announced a coin-operated vending machine, developed jointly with H. J. Heinz Company, that had the property of dispensing a tin can of hot food (one of a selection of six soups or dinners), a can opener, and a spoon. The cans were preserved at a constant temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit (65 °C). The machine was intended for use in factories or large offices, and the company claimed that it was a first of its kind in the United States. The “Liberty Bell” machine was so named because the big jackpot was paid when three bell symbols lined up in the game windows. The contribution of the Mills company seems to have been the use of fruits (cherries, lemons, grapes) as symbols on the spinning wheels.
TJM Corporation was operated by Tony Mills and his brother John Mills. The merged company failed to compete successfully with the electro/mechanical models produced by Bally and also suffered because it had not protected its intellectual property rights in Japan. The company eventually closed its doors in the 1980s.
Mills distinguished itself by being one of only a few firms to manufacture bmachines for both gambling and vending. The link between the two is coin handling, a specialty at Mills. By 1910, the company was making elaborate cast iron machines that sold chewing gum, peanuts, and candy. They also had a variety of amusement devices such as a punching bag machine, a weight lifting machine, a film viewer, fortune telling devices and a gadget that engraved a metal name-plate.
The famous name “The Mills Novelty Company” still survives today, in the form of a business that restores antique Mills violano instruments (self playing violin and piano). They also deal with manufacturing a computer based digital system for the antique Mills Violano Virtuoso instruments. They also occupy with assembling a digital player system that will operate any MIDI equipped, whether is is a new or antique mechanical musical instrument.