Question: How collectible are old cash registers in terms of investment and resale? I have a few because I was in a retail business for a number of years. Now I'm retired and have more time to spend with some of my collectible interests, one of which is cash registers.--E.V.
Answer: As a rule of thumb, we don't like to advise on the potential investment value of collectible categories. One of the reasons is that the collecting public can be fickle, and what's worth a small fortune one day may not be worth pocket change the next. Moreover, we like to look upon collecting as something to enjoy for its own intrinsic sake, and as a spinoff, if you make some extra cash too, well, that's fine.
As for cash registers, they are highly collectible and, as you might guess, can be highly expensive--particularly if they are in good condition.
Cash-register production can be traced back to the 1880s. As the story goes, a Dayton, Ohio, saloon keeper blew his top when he discovered that some of this bartenders were pocketing a portion of his profits. As a result, bar owner James Ritty and his brother recorded a cash-register patent in 1879.
A frequenter of Ritty's saloon was James Patterson, who liked the Ritty brothers' idea so much that he bought two for his store. In 1885, Patterson then bought controlling interest in what had become the National Cash Register Co., which became a resounding success.
Old NCRs are highly collectible partly because of their attractive, ornate appearance and because their production dates are relatively easy to trace.
For example, NCRs with serial numbers below 190,000 are pre-20th-Century models; 190,000 to 800,000 are from 1900 to 1910, and 800,000 to 1,500,000 are from 1910 to 1916. If NCR rebuilt a machine, it replaced the old serial number with a new one--another important piece of information for serious collectors. Also, letters accompanying the numbers can tell collectors something about the rebuilding process. For example, "FR" means factory rebuilt; other letters can indicate when the machine was rebuilt.
Many collectors attempt to find old NCRs that were used decades ago by well-known department stores. These were generally large, complex machines with numerous keys and drawers. Price tags, as you might guess, are steep. An ornate, turn-of-the-century bronze register could easily bring well over $1,000 or much more if it's in good shape.
One more tip, collectors say: Inspect the cash drawer for any notations on where the cash register was sold. It adds to the history (and the collectible price!) of the machine.
Footnote to last week's column about beer cans: I didn't want to slight collectors of beer bottles, and there are a lot of them too. Some bottles are highly collectible because of special embossing or overall design. The bottle's paper label also takes on special appeal for many collectors and can shed some light on the history of the brewery.
Some collectors say don't worry if the metal cap is missing, but there are purists who want the cap and won't buy or trade unless the bottle and cap are intact.
The 1985 California Cola Clan state convention is being held today, Friday and Saturday at the Torrance Holiday Inn, 21333 Hawthorne Blvd. There will be a swap meet on Saturday, auctions and door prizes. Admission is 50 cents. For more information, call convention chairman Charles R. Lansing at (213) 371-3061.