Mills Novelty Company Gaming and Slot Machines – The First Slots Manufacturer

The Mills Novelty Company had a long and storied run that had a significant impact not only the slot machine manufacturing industry, but which also affected the development of vending machine and arcade games for decades. Although these divisions of the once powerful corporation are now defunct, the company was also well-known for their widely celebrated automatic music machines and that aspect of the business is still alive and well in Chicago, Illinois to this day.

The History of Mills Novelty Company

The company was founded in the early 1890’s by Mortimer Birdsul Mills, a Canadian immigrant and inventor. He named his new business MBM Cigar Vending Company based on his patented method of delivering the desired product to the customer from a vending machine. The company branched out to introduce its first slot machine in 1897 and in 1898 Mortimer’s eldest son, Herbert, took the helm from his father and the company was renamed the Mills Novelty Company, Inc. By the time of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the young startup had already made enough of a name for itself in the arcade industry that it was drafted to provide an exhibit for the big event. The Mills’ team presented the Spectatorium, a penny arcade that was a huge hit at the international show.

Mills Novelty Company established a separate corporation to operate its Coin Machine Department in April of 1946, calling the new venture Bell-O-Matic. This business took over the slot machine operations from Mills Novelty and, over time, became a powerhouse within the industry. By the early 1960’s, Bell-O-Matic was a close second in the market to its biggest competitor, Jennings & Company, the founder of which had actually run the Mills Spectatorium pavilion at the World’s Fair years earlier before forming his own successful slots manufacturing business.

Tony Mills, one of the direct descendents of Mortimer, was in charge of the company during that time and he made the decision to sell the family business to the American Machine and Science Company, also known as AMSC. American Machine and Science had also recently bought out the Mills family’s biggest rival, Jennings & Company, and a plan was hatched to merge the two former competitors into one firm that would dominate the slots markets. The name was changed once again, from Bell-O-Matic to the TJM Corporation, a reference to Tony Mills and his brother, John, who partnered to take over this latest incarnation of their family’s long-running business.

Unfortunately, the newer companies in the field were more adept at utilizing the modern technological advances that were being made at the time and, as a result, the TJM games simply couldn’t compete. Coupled with the company’s failure to secure its property rights in Japan, the inability to compete effectively proved to be the ultimate demise for the slot manufacturing side of the legendary Mill Novelty Company and it ceased production in 1990, only a few years shy of the one-hundred year anniversary of its founding.

Mills Novelty Company Slot Machines

Although the Mills name eventually expanded to cover all manner of machines, including jukeboxes and hot soup vending machines, one of its earliest endeavors was, in fact, a slot machine. The game was called the Owl and it was an ornately carved wooden cabinet that featured a lithographed wheel with a ring of small owls and plenty of color to draw the attention of players. The machine was upright and mechanical and one of the first games to be distributed that could boast of either of those things. This slot game became such a hit and was so associated with the Mills brand, that the company logo became an owl and it remains so for the last division of the business that is still in operation today.

Not long after that, in 1900, Mills created the 20th Century slot machine as a tribute to the new era. The oak cabinet stood on pedestal legs and came with or without music as a feature. There were also different models available that would accept either smaller coin denominations and trade checks or half-dollar and dollar coins, high rolling values indeed for those days.

Their 1906 game titled Le Comete was an impressive metal structure that included ornamental elements and an astronomy theme. In the 1920’s, Mills introduced games like the Jackpot Bell, a sleek looking machine that was obviously influenced by the Art Deco style that was so popular at the time. The 1930’s era Blue Front Bell showcased the company’s ability to apply bright colors and metal adornments for a modern look that was exceptionally appealing. The 1941 console-style slot machine called 3 Bells is a prime example of the company’s designs at that time. A carved wooden casing with a three-reel glass display, the game is finished with sleek metal details and eye-popping color.

Once it was operating under the Bell-O-Matic name, the company was able to put together a partnership with the undisputed inventor of the modern slot machine, Charles Fey. Together they developed a game known as the Liberty Bell, with a patriotic theme and a cast iron structure. The addition of a sound element – a ringing bell whenever the player had a winning combination – made this machine a big step for slot machine manufacturers at that time. They continued to make creative games for the next twenty years before losing out to the modern competition that began to join the field of slots production.

Although the Mills Novelty Company hasn’t been in operation in decades, the company’s influence can still be felt on casino floors today. Their innovation in the field and commitment to providing games that would impress gamblers and make them more inclined to play is what led them to the heights of the slots manufacturing industry. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of several generations of the Mills family, this business will go down in the record books as one of the great gaming dynasties of all time.