You’ve undoubtedly seen more than your fair share of pinball machines through the years. With that said, there are some unusual facts about pinball that you may not know.
Pinball Was Illegal in Much of the United States for About 35 Years
Beginning in the early part of the 1940s, and continuing into the mid-1970s, pinball was illegal in a good part of the United States. This included major U.S. cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
At the heart of the ban on pinball was the belief that pinball was a form of gambling, that pinball was a game of chance. On some level, this was not a particularly unreasonable conclusion.
In the late 1930s and into the 1940s, many of the pinball machines in use did not have the flippers a player operates. The ball would be shot across the game, and would meander on down to the base of the game. Perhaps there was some skill in the way the plunger was utilized, but a good argument could be made that the route a ball took, in the absence of the flippers, was a matter or luck or chance.
New York City took a particularly strong stand against pinball, particularly during the administration of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. He had the police department in the city raids of the types theat occurred during Prohibition. Thousands of pinball machines were destroyed in the process.
Pinball Goes Into Hiding
Much like booze during Prohibition, people did not stop playing pinball from the 1940s to the 1970s. Rather, pinball went into hiding.
New York City provides a prime example of what happened to pinball machines and players during this time period. Pinball machines ended up in locations like pornography shops, particularly in Greenwich Village and Harlem. When police discovered the existence of pinball machines in locations such as these, they would stage raids. These raids continued into the 1970s.
Pinball During World War II
At the time of World War II, pinball machines required a considerable amount of copper wire in their construction. Copper was needed for the war effort. Thus, very few new pinball machines were built during the war.
Rather than build new machines, pinball manufacturers came up with what were called conversion kits. These kits permitted the placement of new themes into a preexisting pinball machines. Many of these replacement themes had patriotic motifs.
Pinball Became a Symbol of Rebellion in Hollywood
Due to the fact that pinball was illegal for so long, it became a symbol of rebellion in Hollywood. For example, in the popular 1970s sitcom Happy Days, pinball was used as a symbol of rebellion. The Fonz, the shows iconic rebel, can oftentimes be seen playing pinball in the show. Keep in mind this show was on the air at the same time pinball was being legalized in a number of U.S. cities, including New York.
When the rock opera Tommy came out in 1972, featuring the Pinball Wizard, pinball was illegal across the country. This major part of Tommy focusing on pinball is lost on people today who have little or no memory of the pinball prohibition.
Finally, pinball even was used to make a point on the television show The Simpsons. In one episode of that hugely popular show, a character states: “Television has ruined more minds that pinball and syphilis combined.”
Remnants of Ordinances Making Pinball Illegal
There remain some remnants of the pinball prohibition even today. There are some cities that technically have ordinances on the books prohibiting pinball, but they no longer are enforced. On the other hand, Ocean City, New Jersey, has an ordinance that makes playing pinball on Sunday illegal.
Hugh Hefner Loved Pinball
One of pinball’s biggest celebrity fans was Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. He had a good number of machines at Playboy Mansion, and elsewhere. He was so enamored with the game, he consented to the creation of at least three different Playboy themes pinball machines. Rumor has it that he even maintained a Fireball pinball machine in his office.
Only One Company in the United States Makes Pinball Machines
Today, only one company manufactures pinball machines in the United States. The company, Stern Pinball, is located in the Chicago suburbs. The company has a very small team and the machines are assembled largely by hand. Every new pinball machine produced in the United States comes from this solitary manufacturer.
Pinball and Versailles
During the reigns of King Henry XIV, XV, and XVI, early versions of a table game that would evolve into 20th and 21st century pinball were played at Versailles. These games themselves transitioned from games that were played on the lawns before being brought inside.
Feature image: By Bobak Ha’Eri – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3866498
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