pinball, jukeboxes, miniature golf, bingo, and monopoly -- 11/5/18

Today's selection -- from A Nation of Deadbeats by Scott Reynolds Nelson. With high unemployment, many Americans had too much time on their hands and not enough money. Pinball, jukeboxes, miniature golf, bingo and Monopoly emerged to help fill the void:

"[As the country suffered through the Great Depression], ordinary Americans found ways to make use of free time neces­sitated by underemployment and unemployment. New and cheap leisure activities dominated the 1930s. Pinball machines replaced gambling as a pastime for anyone with a penny and an hour to kill. Reform organizations saw these mechanical devices as little more than personalized pool tables, a gateway to more dangerous gambling. But pinball machines were probably less dangerous than the cramped juke joints of Depression-era America. For those juke operators who could not afford to hire a musician, the jukebox emerged as a cheap physi­cal replacement. It made use of amplifiers (only recently invented) to broadcast music inside the cramped little buildings. By the 1930s the U.S. Mint was forced to produce millions more nickels to keep up with the craze. Furiously resisted by musicians' unions, the jukebox none­theless emerged as the purveyor of cheap music. The jukeboxes were also readily adopted because they did not have a race, and so could per­form anywhere. They helped broaden the appeal of African-American blues and jazz musicians among white audiences, a mechanical con­traption that in its own perverse way helped unsettle segregation in the North and the South.

"Miniature golf, which had been a popular enough attraction at swanky hotels throughout Europe in the 1920s, became an American phenomenon during the Depression. Like the jukebox and the pinball machine, it allowed one to while away hours for small change. While the pinball machine was considered a man's device and the jukebox an especially notorious device for introducing couples to each other, miniature golf appealed to families who had a little change and lots and lots of time. Likewise, Catholic churches short on funds were quickly drawn to an old carnival game that was updated by an entre­preneur who figured out how more than two hundred people could sit with numbered cards and chips all waiting for a big prize. He called it bingo, and it too became a Depression sensation. ...

The original Monopoly board patent

"[1920s utility industry superstar turned 1930s Depression pariah Samuel] Insull became immortalized as one of the inspirations for Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, though Insull's sometime ally William Randolph Hearst was probably more important. Insull was also immortalized with the board game that became one of America's favorite pastimes during the Depression: Monopoly. With his trademark droopy mustache, silk hat, striped pants, and spats, Insull became the symbol of corporate excess.

"Players moved around Atlantic City to acquire properties and utilities and to avoid going to jail. It was a zero-sum game that had only one winner, no matter how often you played it.

"The game had Monopoly money, but it was not based on a reserve of banker's acceptances and Treasury bills. The supply of money did not expand rapidly as the game progressed, and an inner circle of play­ers could not invest in speculative enterprises in Germany or Peru, then foist them on unsuspecting players who walked up to watch the game. It did not end with frayed fortunes, escalating conflicts between players, a major rewriting of the rules, and a second world war. Still, it seemed like a model of an economy that anyone could play. After 1934 millions of Americans had considerable time on their hands. They played it over and over again."


Scott Reynolds Nelson


A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America's Financial Disasters


First Vintage Books


Copyright 2012 by Scott Reynolds Nelson


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