Early cash register manufacturers had to sell their registers not just on functionality, but also on beautiful, ornate design. These early fixtures had to be the shiny, crown jewel of the shopkeeper’s establishment―a shrine to the money they held. Those are the same attributes that draw the interest of today’s collector.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
Fed up with bartenders stealing from him, James Jacob Ritty, a Dayton, Ohio saloonkeeper, invented the first mechanical cash register in 1879. A year earlier, while on a steamboat trip to Europe, the self-described “Dealer in Pure Whiskies, Fine Wines, and Cigars” became enamored by a mechanism that counted the revolutions of the steamboat’s propeller. Having a “counting” problem himself, he wondered whether something similar could be made to count the cash transactions back at his saloon.
As soon as he returned to Dayton, Ritty asked his mechanically inclined brother, John, for help. The two immediately began working on a prototype. After two failed attempts, they finally rang up a winner. The third prototype operated by pressing keys that corresponded to specific dollars and cents. When the clerk was ready to complete a sale, they would press a key on the machine that would add the transaction to the day’s sales total. That total would then be displayed on the register. There was no cash drawer at this point, just a running tally. The design was patented on November 4th, 1879, as “Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier“.
Ritty Model 1 Cash Register, possibly a replica, ca 1904. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian.
National Cash Register Corporation is born
The Ritty brothers opened a small factory at 10 South Main Street in Dayton, Ohio to manufacture their new invention. While churning out registers, James continued to operate his saloon, James Ritty’s Pony House Tavern. Shortly after opening the factory, Ritty found himself overwhelmed with the demands of running two businesses. He subsequently sold the patent to a group of investors, led by Jacob H. Eckhert of Cincinnati, a glass and silverware salesman. Joining Eckhert were John and Frank Patterson, who were then in the coal and railroad business. Shortly thereafter, Eckhert formed the National Manufacturing Company to produce the cash registers. He also re-designed the register to include a cash drawer and bell that would ring with each sale―a built-in alarm notifying the proprietor that a sale had been made.
National Cash Register, ca 1904. Also pictured, a cash register drawer front in original condition. This style is typically found on small barber shop and candy store registers.
However, much like his predecessor, Eckhert soon found himself in over his head. In 1884, he sold the patent and the company to John H. Patterson, who subsequently re-named the company, National Cash Register Corporation, known today as NCR.
Collectors’ Interests in Antique Cash Registers
Antique cash registers attract collectors from a variety of genres, for many different reasons. For one, early registers were big, bold, and beautiful pieces of art; flaunting shiny metal and rich wood materials, and produced in a variety of ornate designs. Like the shopkeepers of old, today’s collector is still attracted to their beauty.
Tinkerers and collectors of “gadgets” are also drawn to early cash registers. For many collectors, such fixtures capture the spirit of the American inventor and represent the earliest contributions to the Machine Age.
This particular machine, model #5, is a detail adder, and is one of the first registers NCR ever created. The detail adder allowed shopkeepers to accurately keep track of sales made during the day, as well as the number of sales made. The plaque on the register is marked with the model number “5” and the serial number “344819” which, according to NCR records, dates this register to June, 1903.
By and large, National Cash Register machines are the most desirable; not only because of their historical value, but due to the artistic use of materials. Brass, bronze, and nickel, along with walnut and oak, were incorporated into ornate floral and organic designs. In addition, the company’s use of serial numbers makes them much easier to date, helping collectors quickly identify a register’s year of production, and its rarity.
Most collections stop at the end of the brass era, around 1917, give or take. This is due in large part to the metal shortages that manufacturers faced during World War 1. The shortage in raw materials forced producers to place more emphasis of functionality versus design.
This is an original National Cash Register showing a wood finish metal top with solid wood cash drawer. The piece has a serial number of S184901V and was manufactured in 1923. Model 842-XX.
In addition to the manufacturer, material, and year of production, working condition and appearance dictate value. Unlike most antiques, cash registers typically command a higher price when professionally restored to their former glory. Done right, a professionally restored register should look like it did the day it rolled out of the factory. So yes, that means shiny brass versus a dull patina!
When it comes to old cash registers, ornate designs, shiny metal, and working parts means one thing, cha-ching!
Have our blog posts delivered straight to your inbox twice per month for free!