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Underwear, pajamas, dried squid, fresh steaks, herbal remedies, pearl necklaces, pornography, cans of oolong tea, sacks of rice, batteries
In Japan, where there is a rather different notion of what goes in a vending machine than in the U.S. Online trip reports by Evelyn and Mark Leeper mention some of these. (Evelyn points out that Japanese vending machines sell hot tea in cans. Ow.)
In 1989, you could buy Levi's jeans from a vending machine in Auber station in central Paris. The machine had a seat belt you strapped around your waist to determine your size. The machine in the Metro was removed after four months and has not been replaced, but the Japanese are said to still have jeans-dispensing machines.
bread, raw eggs
In the years when all stores were closed on Sundays, there was a machine called the Selecto-Mat, invented by Ben Bush, that sold eggs, bread, and a few other essentials. A bread-only vending machine was demonstrated at the 1955 Baking Industry Exposition. Japan also has egg vending machines.
computer punch cards, erasers, notebooks
Personally witnessed at a university -- it was a school-supplies machine for people burning the midnight oil after the student bookstore had closed.
CDs, videotape rentals
Some machines rent videotapes, some sell CDs, some do both.
In Japan and Australia. Suntory is one brand sold in Japanese beer machines. About 70% of Japan's beer vending machines were reportedly shut down voluntarily in 2000.
Ken Elsner points out that beer vending machines are also found in Germany, often at gas stations.
live shrimp, leeches, frogs, fresh fish, worms
In bait machines, in the U.S. and Canada. The frogs, like the shrimp, are live; the machines are refrigerated, so they just hibernate. (Kinds of animals sold live in vending machines: crustaceans, annelids, amphibians.)
The emu jerky websites I used to link to have either disappeared or removed their references to vending machines, so emu jerky vending may have died out in the U.S. Billabong Jerky of Australia still offers emu, kangaroo, and crocodile jerky packaged for "liquor outlets, clubs, supermarkets, vending machines, service stations, pubs, etc," but I don't know if marsupial muscle or strips of ex-ratite are actually making it into vending machines in Australia or elsewhere.
From machines that grind the beans on the spot.
Which reminds me: "omikuji," roughly speaking "fortunes," of the type one finds in fortune cookies. You can buy omikuji at temples and/or shrines (I forget which) in Japan, at the same sales counter where you'd buy good-luck charms to hang via suction-cup on the inside of your car windshield. But I have a photograph of an omikuji vending machine, taken at a Buddhist temple in Nagasaki, if I remember correctly.
--Morris M. Keesan
The Jun Japanese Gifts & Souvenirs website has a photo of an omikuji vending machine as well as some information on more traditional methods of dispensing omikuji.
1960s and possibly late 50s, in the U.S.; currently, in Japan.
These were quite common when I was a child. Comics at that time cost $.12, and the machines took a dime and two pennies -- the only machines I've ever seen (other than gumball and similar dispensers) that took pennies.
I bought plenty of comics from vending machines in Detroit in [the late 1960s], whenever my family would visit our relatives there. The last year I remember seeing one is 1969.
--Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Autocard vending machines print up custom business cards on the spot.
Small stuffed animals have been sold in plastic-capsule vending machines. Also, in skill cranes -- those machines where you work the controls to try to pick up prizes. When operated as games of skill, these are not exactly vending machines; however, the machines can also be set up as "Play-Until-You-Win vending machines." Incidentally, skill cranes have been around since at least the 1940s.
From a machine containing a shareware CD-ROM that writes the program of your choice onto a diskette. Steve Glover spotted one of these in Bradford Library in 1993 or '94, a prototype machine was installed in the Raleigh-Durham International Airport in '95, and in 1996 LaserVend of Draper, Utah claimed to have 20 machines installed.
This online catalog of antique vending machines used to include a picture of a machine that, for a quarter, would let you use a Norelco shaver. When you were done, you got a squirt of aftershave.
Disposable cameras that can't be refilled.
Disneyland... has machines that will dispense faux pirate dubloons or sheriff's badges, on which you can imprint the message of your choice before the item drops down into the retrieval slot.
At Reno's Circus Circus hotel, on the game floor. Reported by Tim Hutari.
cologne, Cuisinarts, pet shampoo, sushi
Among the items sold in Japan's RoboShop, a fully automated convenience store. You browse the aisles, jot down the numbers of items you want, and punch them into a keyboard at the front of the store. A sort of robotic bucket runs back and forth along the display cases catching the items you've bought. It's even smart enough to put the heaviest items on the bottom so your bread doesn't get squashed.
Pre-stamped, at the post office.
Has been done more than once, notably by a florist shop that happened to be located in a building that was formerly a bank; they called themselves "The Flower Bank" and developed a "flower ATM" where you could order arrangements.
We have one of these in a flower shop across the street from our hospital. It's in the entryway which is open all the time (the store keeps normal hours). It has rotating shelves with individual glass (plexiglass?) windows at each shelf level in the front. Each shelf holds four arrangements (I think there's 24 total). It rotates slowly all the time and you enter the number of the arrangement you want, put in money or credit card, and the machine stops at the arrangement and unlocks the appropriate door so you can take the arrangement out. Most of them are "get well" arrangements, but they have some general arrangements, as well as "I love you" arrangements. They also have seasonal arrangements, and at prom time, you can get corsages and boutonieres in it.
--Marilee J. Layman
Also in Japan.
In the Automated Gift Shop
In the U.S. -- little sample-size packages.
A U.K. company called Tight Fit Limited makes pantyhose vending machines.
poetry, paintings, sculpture
Artist Clark Whittington has set up modified cigarette vending machines called Art-O-Mats. You choose an artist and pull the knob to receive an art pack, which might be an acetate-wrapped painting, a tiny sculpture, a photo, or a packet of poems. Art-O-Mats have been installed in at least two dozen locations around the country, including the Whitney Museum. Art-O-Mats have been featured on NPR's Morning Edition (in January 1999), and stories have appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, USA Today, Houston Press, and The Times of London. Photos courtesy Clark Whittington.
Marc Awodey of Vermont has used vending machines to sell miniature chapbooks of poetry by the poets of the Minimal Press Collective. The booklets come wrapped around blocks of wood the size of a cigarette pack. In addition to the machine shown here, which sold laundry soap in a former life, Minimal Press has adapted a larger laundry-soap machine and several cigarette machines. The machines are located in Vermont and New Hampshire. Photos courtesy Marc Awodey.
For an art festival in Stockholm, art vending machines were positioned around popular pedestrian areas, dispensing the work of 40 artists, with prices starting at less than a dollar per item.
peeled oranges and grapefruits
Sunkist makes a machine that dispenses pre-peeled citrus fruits, to save you from the terrible ennui of peeling your own orange. The fruit comes in little transparent plastic containers. The machine can read barcodes on the containers to determine when they've passed their expiration dates and shouldn't be sold.
transparencies, inkjet cartridges
Hewlett-Packard has developed the HP Supply Store, designed to sell inkjet supplies after hours. Test sites included the Arizona State University campus, select grocery stores, and a Tempe, AZ business park.
Many gas stations have pumps that let you pay by swiping a credit card. Shell has tested a Smart Pump that responds to a credit card swipe by opening your fuel tank door and pumping the gas itself, if you've installed a special filler cap.
A company called Billsback was marketing a patented gasoline vending machine that would accept cash and dispense change. As of November 2001, the company has let its domain name registration lapse and I assume they are dead. (It seems to be a pattern: when someone associated with a vending machine company writes to tell me about its machines, the company usually tanks within a year or two.) There is still a barely-visible photo of one of Billsback's machines on the web, on a page by Billsback's PR company; scroll to the bottom and click on the image to enlarge.
Originally in Japan, more recently in the U.S. Other machines combine a noodle-cup dispenser and a hot-water dispenser.
At least since 1993, some farmers in Japan have been selling their vegetables through roadside vending machines.
In the U.S. -- at tennis courts, obviously.
Frozen and reheated. If trends in coffee machine tech are any indication, the machines will soon grind the beef. Eventually, they'll raise the calf.
Engraved while you watch. Reported by Maureen McHugh
At Southampton University, and probably at other universities.
Small whole pizzas heated on the spot. The machines are popular on college campuses. The Yale Herald reports that Spanish fast food company Telepizza patented a pizza machine that would attract (or repel) customers by shouting "Hey, want a pizza?" in ten languages, but I don't know if this machine was actually installed anywhere.
In Japan, according to Allen J. Baum. Umbrella vending machines were predicted by Hugo Gernsback in the little-known science fiction novel Ein Pechvogel, in 1901:
There is one other business that our hero enters which is of scientific interest. He builds an umbrella-vending machine, from which an umbrella may be procured upon the deposit of a coin. Some of the money is automatically returned when the umbrella is put back into the machine. The scheme fails when dishonest people return their broken umbrellas for the deposit money.
-- from the Introduction to Hugo Gernsback's Ultimate World by Sam Moskowitz.
This is probably the first reference to renting from vending machines, which has since been put into practice.
bar soap, toothbrushes, shower caps, socks, playing cards, chess and checker sets sewing kits
Sold in vending machines in hotels. Casinos also sell playing cards (and dice) from vending machines.
I bought playing cards from a vending machine last week at AlbaCon.... At convention hotels I have seen sewing kits, almost any notion (that's a technical term) you might find at a drugstore, various men's magazines and pornographic novels, popcorn, perfume, socks and stockings, midget chess and checker sets (purchased several of them) and gobs of other neat stuff...and I also have been able to buy beer from a vending machine, but only in the student lounge at a Catholic seminary near UMBC.
nose clips, sweat bands
Our local public sports centre has a vending machine that sells swim caps, nose clips and diving goggles, as well as squash balls and sweat bands.
Liquid ink in bottles with a sponge cap, sold in bingo halls for marking game cards. Reported by Ken Elsner.
Videotaped in Tama New City, outside of Tokyo, by Richard Miller, who reports:
The huge machine starts talking to you in Japanese, plays a song, drops the corn into a microwave where you can see it pop, drops a cup, the hot popcorn pours into the cup. All for 100 yen!
herbal eye pillows, neckties, cassette tapes, scotch tape, shaving cream, maps
In the Automated Gift Shop at the Sheraton Metrodome hotel in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Automated Gift Shop is a vending machine with a very large touch-sensitive screen, part of which is static, and part of which is a monitor that can display video. (Much like a Palm Pilot's screen: part can display graphics, part just displays fixed icons, but all of it is a touch-sensitive input device.) The machine takes cash or credit cards, and dispenses the products through two slots -- one for soda and one for everything else. To the right of the IO portion of the machine is a glass case about 10' wide by 6' tall showing samples of some of the items for sale; presumably, behind the case is very large area in which all the products are stored for retrieval. The photo shown here is a screen shot with some of the more than 400 items available -- many of which are also sold in other machines covered on this page.
While the variety of items in the Automated Gift Shop is impressive, its usability needs work. In order to buy a product, you have to navigate through the inventory using icons, and finally touch an image of the product on the monitor. This is hard because the monitor is very low -- presumably to allow access for children and the handicapped -- and the touch-sensitive glass must be about an inch in front of the screen itself. So if you're tall, or even of average height, the parallax makes it hard to figure out where you have to press in order to select an item or button, unless you stand back at a distance that makes it hard to read the small type identifying the products. The static icons also sometimes fail to respond to pressing with a fingertip, even though the machine plays a recording advising you to press with just one finger. I found that three fingers together, or a firm press of my entire thumb, worked better.
The machine at right probably dates back to the 40s or 50s. It sold small ampoules of perfume and cologne. Photo courtesy Pat Simmons.
A company called Air Delight makes -- or made -- machines that spray perfume on you for a quarter. Their Webpage has disappeared and perhaps the company has too.
Shot glasses printed with various Minnesota themes, in the Automated Gift Shop.
Rentals, actually. Also in the U.S.
condoms designed to match your blood type
In Japan. I am not making this up.
For more on the belief that blood type indicates your character, see this summary of blood-type-ology.
Dispensed along with candy or chips in other vending machines. Also given out by "reverse vending machines" where you put in your aluminum cans and get cash or some other incentive back. And there was a scratch-and-win lottery game, sold through special vending machines in supermarkets, where all the tickets had cents-off coupons printed on the back to console you for your loss.
Not in packages; it comes out through a nozzle. (Spludge.)
Blocksun International, the company making these machines, has left the web. I don't know if the machine itself is extinct in the wild or not.
Thin plastic poncho-like raingear for $2. Spotted in Seattle by Ctein
Flight insurance, sold in airports.
plastic models of submarines (made on the spot)
These model-making machines were very popular at one time; I remember getting them at the zoo. Rich Horton reports that the submarine model was offered at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. Ray Radlein has "a Boeing 707, from Miami International Airport, a bust of Lincoln from MOSI in Chicago, a leaping dolphin from Marineland (or some other dancing fish park), and something else from some other place."
relief images of tornados or unicorns (pressed from pennies on the spot)
These machines used to be pretty common too. I saw the tornado-maker at a rest stop in Kansas while I was driving from Arizona to Minnesota a couple of years ago. Pamela has a unicorn stamped into a penny by a similar machine. Other machines, instead of pressing the penny flat, would create some kind of customization -- a tiny little portrait of some famous person over the date, and suchlike.
french fries (fried on the spot)
U.K., Europe, U.S. These machines go back at least 25 years:
University of Toronto Engineering Annex had a coin operated fry-on-the-spot french-fry/chip machine when I got there in 1975. It looked pretty old even then. The supply of paper trays used to collect one's serving of chips tended to run out at inconvenient moments, and then one would see more experienced students collecting the output on their lab notebooks and some frosh trying to catch the french fries in their hands. Since the chips had only been out of the hot oil for about ten seconds before they were delivered, the latter method was not very effective.
Barry's Amusement Arcade, Queen's Parade, Bangor, NI in the late sixties and early seventies... either 2/- or 2/6 for a *big* pile of hot chips with not enough salt or vinegar.
eggs (poached on the spot)
Korea. The eggs are cooked in a little microwave.
orange juice (squeezed on the spot)
From the Oranfresh R-120, made by a firm in Catalina, Italy. The machine drops oranges onto a spinning squeezer, extracts the juice, and pours it into a cup.
ATM-like ticket-vending machines are being installed in lots of supermarkets.
Don't know anything more about this one; I just saw it mentioned. I seem to remember seeing such a machine in a drugstore many years ago. I haven't seen them in Minnesota. No doubt state laws vary on how hunting permits can be sold.
Some supermarkets now make you deposit a quarter to get a cart. There's a similar system for luggage carts at airports.
In dedicated vending machines.
"[I]n machines containing several and supplying one at random, so a person could spend several coins before getting the tattoo they wanted."
panties previously worn by schoolgirls
Reported by Betsy Perry. An article in The Economist (Oct. 18 1993, p. 76) provides evidence it's not just an urban legend.
fish food, corn
In parks: food pellets for koi, cracked corn for ducks.
In sandwiches, of course. And carousel vending machines have been known to sell it in little pull-top cans.
soup mix, wild rice, sweatshirts, T-shirts, Post-its, beach balls, binoculars, superglue, foot massagers,
More items from the Automated Gift Shop. The soup mix is for a wild rice soup, and, thus, a sort of Minnesota souvenir. The binoculars are small, toylike devices intended for kids, and the foot massager is a simple wooden device that you run your feet over.
inflatable sex dolls
Go to Columbus, Ga. Little sleazy shop across Victory Drive from a a country and western bar near the Motel 6. Bring ten bucks in quarters. Enjoy!
Note: information is ten years out of date, none of this is probably still there.
In the Paris Metro. Someone reasoned that if people buy books in airports, they'd buy them there, too. The first novel sold through the machines was Murder on the Orient Express.
More recently, a bookselling kiosk offering up to 25 titles was installed in the Pittsburgh International Airport. Source: USA Today, August 15, 2000.
Miniature Bibles were sold in vending machines in the 50s and 60s. The one shown here contains the Lord's Prayer, a "portion" of the New Testament, and even a few illustrations. It ends with a blank section for births, marriages, and deaths, just in case you want to record your family history in a Bible the size of an eraser. Photo courtesy Jack Gurner.
Beetle-collecting is a popular summer pastime in Japan, so an enterpreneur converted a vegetable vending machine to sell beetles to children. As reported in a Guardian story in August 1999, as well as in Slate (scroll down) and the Nando Times.
In the Automated Gift Shop. The snow globe sold depicts a loon and says "Minnesota."
The very first vending machine, described by Heron of Alexandria. Heron's exact dates are not clear but he probably wrote in the first century A.D. When you dropped in a coin, its weight would open a valve, and the machine would dispense a trickle of holy water.
Here's a diagram of the machine's workings, and the Smith College Museum of Ancient Inventions has a reproduction on display.
Rick Buur wrote me about a marijuana vending machine at coffeeshop Hill Street Blues in Amsterdam. It is also mentioned in this trip report by a Vancouver police officer: "A joint-dispensing machine stood next to the bar, with enticingly plump reefers starting at six Guilders: about three dollars." Since the same report mentions that "marijuana and hashish could be ordered from an extensive menu," the vending machine seems superfluous -- maybe it's just there for novelty value.
Personally witnessed. They were Pet Rocks.
In gas stations. There are also coin-operated machines in Japan that sell hits of oxygen.
Copyright 1994-2002 Raphael Carter
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