This Week In Illinois History: The Pinball Prohibition (March 17, 1939)

Mar 15, 2021

An arcade in Kansas City, Missouri (1968). The signs above the pinball machines were meant to deter illegal gambling.
Credit National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain

March 17, 1937. Illinois’ Attorney General John E. Cassidy declared that all pinball machines were to be outlawed as gambling devices. He called them “pernicious and dangerous to the public welfare.” Law enforcement officers around the state pledged their support, ready to seize the pinball machines just as they would any slot machine.

Many city officials fought back, arguing that they received substantial licensing and tax revenue from pinball establishments. The case eventually headed to the state supreme court, who ruled in 1942 that certain types of pinball machines could be classified as “mechanical gambling devices,” which had been outlawed by the state since 1895.

But the decision did not make all pinball machines illegal and allowed local officials to decide which devices would and would not be banned. This left the state with a confusing hodgepodge of local ordinances. Chicago, however, had already banned the machines outright, which was ironic, because the industry was centered in Chicago and most of the country’s pinball machines were manufactured there.

Coin-operated pinball machines first became popular in the 1930s. Early models operated with the same concept as modern machines. They allowed you to shoot a ball onto an inclined plane with the hopes that it would land in one of several receptacles. These receptacles were surrounded, to varying degrees, by several nails or pins (thus the name, pinball).

However, these early models did not have flippers for the player to control to keep the ball in play. Because the player was at the mercy of the machine’s mechanical design, law enforcement considered them subject to the 1895 ban on mechanical gambling devices.

And in many instances, they were used for gambling. At some establishments, pinball machines were used like roulette wheels, with guests gathering around them and casting bets on where the ball will land. Other establishments simply offered prizes, sometimes even cash, based on the game’s outcome.

Gambling aside, several churches and schools spoke out against the frivolity and immorality of playing pinball. They argued that these devices lead directly to juvenile delinquency.

And this is where Chicago and several Illinois cities stood until the 1970s, when they began to reconsider the prohibition on pinball. With the introduction of manually controlled flippers, pinball was reclassified as a game of skill rather than a game of chance. Chicago overturned its ban in 1977.

But even into the 1980s, a Chicago alderman described pinball establishments as “nests for gangs and drugs” and tried to restrict their use to adults only.