Remember these iconic vending machines at New Jersey Turnpike rest stops?
Ah, to be a child in the 1960s.
Hanna-Barbera cartoons! Sugary cereals! And that classic baby-boom farce, the Family Vacation — complete with Howard Johnson's "children's meal" at the Interstate rest stop ("Tommy Tucker Plate: Sliced Roast Turkey, Buttered Vegetable, Whipped Potato and Gravy…Ice Cream, Sherbet or Gelatin"). All of it climaxed by a delightful temper tantrum.
Screaming. Pouting. Tugging on sleeves. And when dad finally gave you the quarter, the mad rush to the Mechanical Servants vending machine.
Remember Mechanical Servants? You do, if you grew up in New Jersey.
Most rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike — not to mention the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the New York State Thruway, and other toll roads — had a wonderful vending machine in the lobby. For sale, at prices ranging from 25 cents to $1.50, was an array of utterly useless baubles, trinkets and doodads that were catnip to any kid on a long trip.
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Magnetic scottie dogs. Wire puzzles. Magnifying glasses. Plastic animals. "Chinese" handcuffs. Charm bracelets. The magic guillotine that cuts off your little finger. The compass embedded in a tiny rubber tire. And each one in a cute, iconic red-and-white "Mechanical Servants, Inc." box. "Here to serve you when you need them," read the legend on the box.
You could even get diamond rings, at 25 cents each. A steal.
"We sold thousands, tens of thousands, of diamond rings," says David Baum, vice chairman of the Illinois-based Mechanical Servants LLC — yes, it still exists — and son of the founder. "It came in a little plastic box, with felt. It was a pretty big diamond, too."
After all these years, we can let you in on a little secret. The diamond was — shhhhhhh! — glass.
"For a quarter, you weren't going to get a diamond," Baum says.
But the biggest seller, Baum says, was none of these items. It was something called The Surprise Package.
"The Surprise Package was everything that didn't sell," Baum says. "We would package them and call it The Surprise Package. It became the No.1 best-selling item. As it turned out, we bought more things to put in the Surprise Package, because we sold so many."
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Mechanical Servants was the product of a different age.
The Interstate Highway System, brainchild of President Dwight Eisenhower, was new and wondrous. Vending machines were still novel. And what kid could resist a vending machine called "Mechanical Servants" — as if some sci-fi robot was dispensing your toy? The name was a master stroke.
As a matter of fact, for a while Mechanical Servants offered vending machines that were robots. "It lit up, it talked to you," Baum says.
His father, Harold D. Baum, was a vending machine visionary. "Automatic merchandising has not 'scratched the surface' of its potential growth," Baum wrote in a July 1960 editorial. In 1955, he had incorporated Mechanical Servants, and his earliest machines were to be found in ladies' and mens' rooms, dispensing sundries: sanitary napkins, facial tissue, combs, aspirin.
Those items were also found in his larger lobby machines. But along with them, increasingly, were gimcracks, trinkets. Harold Baum had made a great discovery: Toys were the things that really sold.
"We started to put those items in the Turnpike [machines], and they sold more than the items that people theoretically needed," David Baum says.
It was the 1960s. Kids were more numerous than ever before. Families, on the move, piled those kids into station wagons, and herded them in and out of rest stops. Once the kids got a look at those magnetic scotties, it was all over.
"There were maybe 4,000 or 5,000 machines at our peak," Baum says. In addition to rest stops, Mechanical Servants machines could be found in some dime stores like McCrory and Zayre, and in Marriott hotels.
What happened to them? Changing times — and changing technology.
The old pull-knob vending machines of the Mechanical Servants era became outmoded by the late 1970s, gradually replaced by the glass-fronted machines we know now. So Mechanical Servants got out of the vending business. These days, under the subsidiary Convenience Valet, they distribute those blister-packs of sundries you find in highway gift shops.
As for the machines themselves, there are not many left.
"They all got sold, scrapped for the cost of steel," Baum says. "I have two vending machines in my old office. And that's it."