Games that test our skills are always the most interesting, and to me, those are the game of pinball, which is actually a type of arcade game.
Pinball collector Rod Wideman, of Shakopee, started his collection in 1994. His collection includes Bagatelle games, which are considered the "foundation" of what became pinball games.
“These were also considered children’s toys, made as far back as the 1870s, and were popular right up through the 1960s and '70s," he said. "In 1931, a company took the concept of these Bagatelle games, mounted them in a small cabinet, added a 'penny' coin-slide mechanism, and pinball was born (although it would not adopt that name until the mid-1930s).”
Wideman said getting into pinball machines wasn’t a huge leap for him, but it didn't start out as a collection.
"It really hadn’t been my intent at the time to build a collection of them," he explained. "I just wanted one to restore and play, since I had played pinball machines as a kid, and getting one of my own seemed like a fun opportunity. At the time, I didn’t know anyone else who was into them or owned any.”
Several manufacturers made both a coin-operated version of a game and a “home use” version, which had the same name, layout and graphics, but was the toy Bagatelle.
"Northwestern Mailbox company (later Northwestern Products) made nice games with glass coverings, sealing the balls inside," Wideman said. "During the 1950s, they made games sold by Sears under the 'Happi Time' brand. In the 1960s, plastic games were introduced, and the wood, metal and cardboard materials were phased out. The plastic games often featured licensed themes (like TV shows).”
Toy games vs. full-size
Wideman said Bagatelle games are fairly plentiful and inexpensive for common games., but older, more graphical games can command a premium.
“The plastic games can be had for usually under $20 (unless it’s a crossover collectible, like a comic-book character or such)," he said. "The older games from the 1930s can fetch $20 to $60 or more, and they are readily found in antique stores, flea markets, estate sales, etc."
Wideman said full-size pinball machines can cost anywhere from $500 to $10,000 or more, depending on the name and condition. "The hunt for those usually leads to other collectors, specialty dealers, and online sites, like Craigslist and Facebook," he said.
Books and other resources
Michael Shalhoub has authored four books on pinball machines, each titled “The Pinball Compendium,” but focusing on a different era (the 1930s to '60s; 1970s to 1981; 1982 to present; and the "electro-mechanical" era).
“There have been pinball price guides published throughout the years, but they also fell as victims to the internet," Wideman said. "The one that is still published and available that I like is the 'Mr. Pinball Price Guide' by Daina Pettit."
He said pinball collecting has a very active presence online, with several webpages and Facebook groups dedicated to it.
"Before the internet, there were popular magazines, such as the PinGame Journal and Gameroom Magazine, but the online options overtook those several years ago," he said. "There are sporadic magazines that do appear, but nothing consistent."
Neil Hunt, of A-Z Collectibles in Winona, said he has a few vintage table-top plastic games selling for around $40 or less.
Brad Sissel, a vendor at the Old River Valley Antique Mall in Stewartville, said he has one priced at $16. "Everything is intact, but the plastic face is mildly scuffed, and there are a few small stress cracks in the plastic," he said.
Sandy Erdman is a Winona-based freelance writer and certified appraiser concentrating on vintage, antique and collectible items. Send comments and story suggestions to Sandy at firstname.lastname@example.org.