Arcade machines were all the rage in the early 20th century. One company maintained its spot at the head of the pack for nearly one-hundred years by producing machines and their prizes, and that company was ESCO: Exhibit Supply Company.
Established in 1901 in Chicago, ESCO jumped feet-first into the very niche arcade merchandising industry and hit the ground running.
Penny arcades were still relatively new at the time, and allowed people to play carnival-style games without the need for a human to actually run the thing. J. Frank Meyer founded ESCO with the idea that there was a need for prizes for specific classes of these machines—namely, picture card vending machines. The user would insert a penny and get a picture in exchange.
Pictures came in various styles, with different series available (numbered, even) and subject matter ranging from raunchy comics to pretty ladies. These picture cards were collectible then and now, and they were only available from ESCO and their machines.
ESCO’s cards were printed on heavy stock in duotone, at a quality comparable to a photograph, almost guaranteeing that many would outlast the machines themselves (and sometimes the people that purchased them). Postcards and picture cards from ESCO are still available online, with some being sold in lots or as singles on eBay and from other private sellers.
During WWII, ESCO’s arcade machine production was put on hold, but they were still allowed to produce wartime card sets for their existing vending machine stock. The paper shortage didn’t hit them nearly as hard as it could have! From fake love letters to funny cards about life on the front lines, the factory printed all sorts of new material to help keep everyone’s spirits up. This is one such card:
This arcade card was produced as part of a set in 1943 that was full of risqué little comics, especially involving women, especially involving wartime activities.
After over 70 years in business, with only a fraction of its previous roster of employees, ESCO was sold to a sports card dealer in 1979. He sold off most of the machines and parts, but he kept the massive archive of photos that was used to produce the company’s arcade cards; he continued to produce sets from these archives until dissolving the company in 1985. The story of Exhibit Supply Co. had come to an end.
Examples of their arcade machines and cards can be found in museums and archives, especially the Made in Chicago Museum, which is where I learned all about ESCO—and you can continue the educational journey!
I wonder where the over 7,000-piece photo archive from the company’s heyday has gone, and if the last owner still has it in storage? A box of original ESCO photographs would be the find of the century! Especially if it was a complete series.
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