The origins of penny arcades date back into the 19th Century and originally referred to the machines themselves. Machines with arm mechanisms collected pennies from players and paid out in wooden nickels good for more plays or carnie prizes. The pennies from players quickly compensated the arcades for the $10 to $20 the machines cost the owners. These were the original one-armed bandits. (Decades later, slot machines made their appearance. Later still, “penny arcade" came to refer to a specified area where customers could play the machines. )
Early in the Twentieth Century, a different kind of machine made its appearance. It vended cartoon postcards printed on cardboard. These cards generally had poor printing quality and had suggestive themes. One I own shows a man at a table with a young woman he is plying with wine. “I'll have the stewed chicken, " the diner says to the waiter. In this case he was referring to the young woman, not the fowl. In the 1910s the French postcard “nudies" appeared on the market using large-grain screens and often printed in blue ink. Some have suggested that these cards were the origin of the term “blue" to describe *** ography. The nudies lasted well into the 1930s when the publishers returned to suggestive cartoons. During the Second World War, the young women reappeared as pin-up girls in scimpy clothing drawn by well-known artists such as Gillette A. Elvgren.
In addition to the suggestive cards, many early ones poked fun at fraternal organizations such as the Elks and the Masons. One card I have shows a man dreaming and is titled “The Prospective Elk. " It lampoons the organization and makes membership sound uappealing. A skeleton says “Best People on Earth, " referring to the initials BPOE, which stands for the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. Another section shows the prospective member being boiled in a pot to pass the heat test. A clock grabs him, “He's got you, Steve. " Devils poke him in his rear, “We promised you a warm reception. " Another shows him being set down on a bed of nails. “You will be inclined to remember this. " Not being an Elk, I'm not familiar with the allusions. But I do understand the ones associated with the Masons.
The one I have shows a prospective Entered Apprentice in bed dreaming the night before he enters the fraternity. A goat stretches across his bed, “Brother I'm waiting for you. " Two of the major images show the poor candidate bent over a square and another strapped to a compass. “We'll put him on the square, all right. " “This is a labor of love. " Another mason with a hammer says: “We've got him dead to rights. " The candidate is strapped to a compass and a brother says: “Put your arms around me, Honey. " Another brother is about to kick one of the legs of the compass out from under him. “Let's get on with the Good Work. "
Yet another image shows the candidate with his mouth open and a brother about to fill it with mortar. “The Lime will strengthen the joints. "
I remember the trepidation I felt the night of my entry into Masonry and would not have appreciated the heavy-handed humor of the card. The cartoonist was obviously familiar with the Order and undoubtedly provided a good laugh to some of the brothers who saw it and offense to others.
In fine, the history of arcade cards is interesting from a historical and collectible standpoint. Let's hope they will be well taken care of or they will soon be gone.
John Anderson is a Mason and a dealer in collectibles. He is also an author and has written the thriller entitled The Cellini Masterpiece under the pen-name of Raymond John. He invites you to visit his website http://www.cmasterpiece.com