There are hundreds of museums all over the world, and almost every one of them is worth a peek inside, but probably my favourite antiquated museum is the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco. This place is truly a one of a kind collection of oddities saved by devoted collector that tell a story of a bygone era. But the best thing about this museum, is that it lets you interact with every piece inside their doors. Some museums have very strict velvet rope policies with their paintings and artifacts, so much so that sometimes you barely can make out whether the thing is real or not. But here, you can get right up close, stick you head inside and even have your fortune read by one of these mechanical wonders.
The Museum houses over 300 mechanical machines and is one of the biggest private collection of antique arcade games in the world! These early video games where just as innovative and exciting to the 19th century crowd as the Xbox Kinect seems to us today. These machines brought the Victorians into a magical environment where their imagination could come alive.
"To the generation before, these were the video games. Many visitors haven't been here since childhood, but when they walk through that door, they are going back in time." -Dan Zelinsky, Museum Curator
This old school arcade has been lovingly repaired and every machine on display still works today for anyone who visits the museum drop their coin inside and see what happens. Unlike many modern video arcades, these games still only cost a few coins. When you enter, you can use their change dispenser to trade in your dollar bills for coins and decide which antique machines you want to explore. The various mechanical games include love testers, peep show viewers, Stereoscopes, fortune tellers, mechanical marionettes and an incredible, and rare, diorama from 1920 of a traveling carnival with a Ferris wheel, cotton candy maker, gazebo band and a myriad of other characters and attractions - all of which come to life with a simple drop of a coin.
These Love-o-meters are a wonderfully nostalgic piece of history that still survives today. Even now when I walk into an arcade, such as a Dave & Busters, there is still some interpretation of the "Love Tester" hanging on today. These old love tester machines measured the moisture on ones hand and delivered a result based on that level of moisture. At the time, this must have been taken at face value as science and mechanics weren't something mainstream many people would have been wary of. Hundreds of different versions where produced and you can check out many different ones here at the museum.
Another traditional troupe of the Mechanical Arcade machine era is the Fortune teller. These vintage machines would give out a printed card with a prediction of the users fortune written on it. Depending on the complexity of the machine, the teller inside would sometimes move their arms, their eyes might flash, they might even talk and the lights inside would even twinkle and spark on and off to create a sense of magic in the air as your fortune is being predicted. Probably the most famous incarnation of the fortune teller machine is from the movie "Big" where Tom Hank's character users a fortune teller machine and it changes the his fate forever. I think everyone, whenever they use one of these machines, wonders if the same thing will happen to them.
I was lucky enough to get my fortune read by one of these machine. It spit out a printed sheet of paper, typed by a typewriter, with my fate emblazoned upon it. The machine was low on ink so the fortune was slightly hard to read - but that only added vintage feel of the whole experience.
|This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons|
They even have one of the only known electrical bicycles that was created, an oddity of history but another wonderful addition to the collection.
Below you can view the diorama mentioned previously. I put my single coin in the slot and in moment the entire scene came alive. The Ferris wheel began to spin, the band began to play, children danced in the street and lights lite up throughout the carnival. Absolutely wonderful.
Some of the more interesting pieces in the museum are the morbid curiosity machines. Below you can see two examples: the first is a mechanical representation with little figurines of a French Execution and the other, a Stereoscope of the deadly 1906 Earthquake and fire. Death was a great obsession during the Victorian era and their curiosities needed to be sated by using machines like these. They huddled around them to get a glimpse at what death and the afterlife might just be like. Although now they seem so antiquated, at the time they were a truly extraordinaire thing to see.
Other Stereoscopes found throughout the museum depict burlesque peep show on varying themes. They are pretty tame, so no need to worry about bring the kids here, but one must imagine how shocking and titillating these machines must have been when they were first introduced. Stereoscopes were an incredible piece of technology and were the 3D movies of their time.
The most famous piece in the Museum is their 'Laffing* Sal" - a TERRIFYING monster (well technically it's a doll but that's debatable) of a women who laughs hysterically, and rocks back and forth, waving her arms when activated. These machines were, surprisingly, mass produced during the 1920s and early 1930s for amusement parks around America. Although she might be a little scary, she was the first animated amusement park character and helped usher in a era of animated characters that Walt Disney followed with all his wonderful creatures. *sic
This place is definitely worth a look so check them out at the new home on Fisherman's Whaft in San Francisco.