|By Eric Rodenburg
Saloon keeper James Jacob Ritty had his suspicions.
His business was booming in 1878. There was always a good crowd of tipplers; but, there were no profits. He had opened his first saloon in Dayton, Ohio, in 1871, proudly billing himself as a “Dealer in Pure Whiskies, Fine Wines and Cigars.” In 1872, he opened another saloon, the “Pony House,” which had previously been a school of French and English for young ladies. Business was brisk there too. But no profits.
Perturbed, he booked a vacation steamer trip to Europe.
The story continues that Ritty, who had a modicum of mechanical savvy, became interested in the machinery of the ship during his time at sea. He was particularly interested in the counting mechanism that recorded the revolutions of the ship’s propeller shaft. With thoughts still fixed on his saloon losses, Ritty had an epiphany: Why couldn’t a store’s sales be recorded by using a mechanical device similar to that recording the ship’s propeller rotations?
Upon arrival in Europe, Ritty booked immediate passage back to the United States. He was not in Europe for a full day.
Back in Dayton, Ritty confided with his brother John, a skilled mechanic, on his new idea. In the 1870s and 1890s, Dayton was bursting at the seams with new ideas. Dayton inventors, according to the U.S. Patent Office, had been granted more patents per capita than any other U.S. city in 1890. The small city ranked fifth in the nation for patents as early as 1870.
The Ritty brothers patented their first cash register, “Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier” on Nov. 4, 1879.
And James Jacob Ritty’s suspicions were well-founded. Profits were up. His “Incorruptible Cashier” was deterring the corrupt fingers of bartenders from “dipping in the till.”
The brothers opened a small factory to make cash registers. But, being more interested in making ready cash, they failed to see the promise of their invention.
But, “downriver” in the mining community of Coalton (in Coal Township), savvy businessman John H. Patterson didn’t have to think twice about the opportunity.
Seeing an advertisement circular “from someone in Dayton, Ohio advertising a machine which recorded money and sales in retail stores,” Patterson bought two Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashiers, at $100 each.
Patterson was also having problems at his “cash and carry” store. Whether it was outright thievery, or a distracted clerk not ringing up the transactions, Patterson was looking for ways to track his cash.
When he first saw the machines, he was skeptical.
“ … when we saw them we were astonished at the cost. They were made mostly of wood, had no cash drawer, and were very crude,” Patterson is quoted as saying in The Incorruptible Cashier by authors Richard L. Crandall and Sam Robins. (The book, published in 1988 and currently out of print, is considered a seminal book by collectors). “But we put them in the store, and, in spite of their deficiencies, at the end of 12 months we cleared $6,000.”
Patterson was pleased with his savings. However, unlike Ritty, he also saw the big picture.
“The order and system enforced by these machines had enabled us to secure for ourselves all the money coming to us from the sale of our goods,” Patterson exclaimed. “I said to my partners: ’what is a good thing for this little store is a good thing for every retail store in the world. When this machine is properly constructed there’ll be an enormous sale for it.”
In late 1884, Patterson bought control of the company, and renamed the enterprise The National Cash Register Company. “The purchase price of $6,500 seemed so high that all who knew about the sale laughed at the price,” according to The Incorruptible Cashier authors.
From the 1890s through at least the introduction of electronic cash registers, the National Cash Register Co. dominated American sales of cash registers. The company, which remained a family-owned entity until Patterson’s death in 1922, specializes in office
equipment yet today.
Eighty-four companies sold cash registers between 1888 and 1895, but only three survived for any length of time, according to www.cashregistersonline. Much of the unsuccessful rate of competitors is widely attributed to Patterson’s dogged determination to improve cash register technology, his willingness to design and build products to meet specific customer demands and his unflagging determination to roust out patent infringers.
Aggressive sales tactics, numerous acquisitions and legendary lawsuits assured National Cash Register’s domination of the market.
For cash register collectors, such off-brands – while rare – add value to a collection. At the same time, buyer beware: the off-brands are often made of cheaper “pot metal” and inferior working parts.
Cash register collectors are looking primarily for pre-World War I models – those brass showpieces that light up a room with their brilliance. The earlier wooden pieces are most revered by collectors. Brass was ultimately banned for its ornamental appeal in 1917, to free up metal for making ordnance during the war years.
Pre-World War I cash registers can still be easily found. National Cash Register and the off-brands sold millions of cash registers. By 1911, the NCR had sold a million machines, grown to almost 6,000 employees and controlled 95 percent of the U.S. market.
“About 75 percent of all machines to be found today at antique shows, stores and flea markets are in the $300-$1,000 area,” says Todd Crook, a collector since the late 1980s and past president of the Antique Cash Register Collectors. “A professionally restored Model 313 can cost anywhere from $1,800-$2,000. Then you get into the rare models which can go $10,000, $15,000 or even $20,000.”
The Model 313 was a basic register, capable of keeping track of total sales. The cost of a new one in 1909 ranged from $50 to $175. The various prices were determined by the five different sizes and whether the register came with a printer. Serving primarily in cigar stores, taverns, retail stores and restaurants, these machines came with a wide-range of designs, including handsome marble shelves, finely turned brass rails and, possibly, a fancy-scrolled enamel keyboard.
“There are different kinds of collectors,” Crook says. “There are the collectors who collect only the wood registers (that is, generally those made before the 20th century). For them, it’s about the beautiful wood patterns and types of wood used in making cash registers, some of them containing up to nine drawers.”
For the more technically enchanted, some of the floor model cash registers have “thousands and thousands of gears. From 1890 to 1900, there were something like a thousand different patents, and you can find anything from a register with simple dials to the extremely sophisticated models.
“It’s just unreal to me that only 130 years ago, there was this much intelligence and creativity to build something so complex. Each one is a marvel, both in its design and function.”
Crook recommends that anyone interested in collecting cash registers avail themselves of the NCR Archive in the Miami Valley History Research Center in Dayton. There are more than 3 million historic documents, photographs and objects of local, national and international significance that were donated by National Cashier Register to The Dayton Historical Society.
The Society, one of the largest historical organizations in the Midwest, has teamed up with personnel at Dayton’s Carillon Park to have several cash registers on display at the park.
Those interested can also learn more at the websites of the Antique Cash Register Collector at www.antiquecashregistercollector.com