Remember when coin-operated horse rides were the best part of running errands?

Vintage coin-operated horse ride

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Bouncing into fun: The evolution of coin-operated rides (20th century)

J Otto Hahs, who lived from 1891 to 1969, was an inventor with a knack for fun. In the early 1930s, he launched the era of coin-operated horse rides — but before that he was actually a master craftsman and a skilled blacksmith. Hahs had a workshop in Sikeston, Missouri, where he honed his craft and worked on various mechanical projects.

Hahs was inspired to try his hand at something that would bring joy to children and families. His skills as a craftsman set the stage for his later inventions, giving him the know-how to make something as mechanically intricate as a ride that could mimic the motion of a horse or other forms of travel.

Vintage coin-operated kiddie rides at ClickAmericana com

By the early 1930s, Hahs was ready to introduce his latest creation: mechanical coin-operated horse rides. The invention was an instant hit, first capturing the public’s imagination at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933. The ride was innovative enough to gain significant attention — and even became a headline attraction just two years later, in 1935, at a prominent industry conference.

Here, in a gathering that brought together 10,000 attendees from various fields, Hahs’ coin-operated rides turned heads and stole the spotlight. This was the launchpad that sent these mechanical joys into the mainstream, eventually making them a ubiquitous sight across the United States.

The coin-operated horse ride, plus a whole fleet of mechanical wonders

As the initial concept of the coin-operated horse ride gained traction, inventors and manufacturers saw room for diversification. Soon enough, the lineup expanded to feature more than just equestrian adventures. Rockets, boats, and cars entered the scene, giving kids a wider variety of rides to choose from.

What’s particularly interesting is how these new additions were often influenced by what was going on in the world at the time. For example, during the space race of the 1950s and 1960s, rocket rides became all the rage. The designs of these mechanical spacecraft were often inspired by the same rockets that were capturing headlines and blasting astronauts into orbit.

Vintage kiddie rides at ClickAmericana com

This trend of mirroring current events extended to other types of rides as well. Boat rides mimicked popular seafaring vessels, and car rides often took the shape of the latest models rolling off assembly lines. These coin-operated kiddie rides were miniature reflections of an evolving culture and its technological aspirations.

This made them all the more attractive to kids, offering them not just a moment of fun, but a chance to interact with their imaginations in a way that felt connected to the larger world around them.

The nostalgic locales of mechanical horse rides

Mostly found outside drugstores, grocery stores, and shopping malls, these coin-operated rides became landmarks of delight for little ones. They were the best part of a shopping trip — the cherries on top of a family outing. The sight of these mechanical companions, with their bright colors and inviting seats, is etched in the memories of many — taking us back to a simpler, carefree time in our lives.

The operation was straightforward, yet filled with anticipation. A coin, usually a nickel or a dime, was all it took to start the horse galloping or get a spaceship to blast off. The simplicity of the tech making these rides work was part of their charm. A basic motor powered the gentle motions, while the whimsical designs and the endless landscapes of a child’s imagination did the rest.

While the rides may have been basic, their impact was profound. They put smiles on the faces of countless children, providing a momentary escape into a world of fantasy.

The trend continued to evolve and diversify through the 1970s, with manufacturers incorporating more sophisticated mechanics, sound effects and interactive elements to enhance the experience.

Even as the digital age ushered in more sophisticated forms of entertainment, the vintage coin-operated rides hold a special place in our childhood memories — a sweet reminder of the little joys of yesteryear.

Old coin-operated horse ride at ClickAmericana com

Vintage coin-operated rides: Horses, spaceships, boats & more (1953)

Billboard magazine – January 31, 1953

Years ago, a small-town Missourian put a coin chute on a mechanical horse he had built for his youngsters. He didn’t know it then, but he was laying the groundwork for 1953’s fastest-growing business — a rare combination of wholesome fun and clever merchandising.

Rocket ships, cows, flying saucers, boats, cars and many other types of coin-operated kiddie rides have followed the horse. And as with the horse, they delight millions of kiddies in department stores, variety stores, supermarkets, suburban shopping centers and countless other outlets.

In addition to entertaining the youngsters, these rides are spurring the sales of a wide variety of merchandise from cowboy suits and hats to the kind of paraphernalia designers imagine “spacemen” use. The horse the Missourian built has since become big business.

Ride the champion – Realistic Western pony

Old coin-operated horse rides (4)

How coin-operated kiddie rides became big business

Billboard magazine – January 31, 1953

MANY individuals and firms in the coin-operated kiddie ride industry look upon it as a newly-created field. While it is only now coming into its own as a profitable business for thousands, its origin goes back to 1931, though for all purposes it was on a small scale until 20 years later.

In 1931, Otto Hahs, head of the locally known Hahs Machine Works, in Sikeston, Missouri, built a mechanical horse for his youngsters and their playmates. Hahs immediately saw the possibilities of the horse as a commercial venture, and he soon was working on a unit adaptable for coin-operation.

Ready for public location, the commercial horse proved an instant hit in the area around Sikeston, and the Missourian was ready for added tests following the completion of several units through the end of 1931 and early 1932.

About the time Hahs was building his horse for the free play of the Sikeston moppets, the Link Aviation Trainer Sales Corporation, New York, was introducing a plane ride called the Pilot Maker to the nation’s locations — though strictly for amusement park and carnival type spots. This was a comparatively complicated ride for a youngster and most of the patrons turned out to be adults.

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Old coin-operated horse rides (5)

While the success of the Link coin-operated ride was modest because of its basic appeal to grown-ups, it went on to become a historical trainer for Army, Navy and Marine Corps pilots in the late ’30s and still plays an important part in the schooling of combat pilots.

Currently, Link has its factory in Binghamton, N. Y., and is headed by Ed Link. When Hahs took his coin-operated horses to the 1932 convention of the National Association of Amusement Parks (in later years the trade group expanded and is now known as the National Association Of Amusement Parks, Pools and Beaches) it was more of an experimental showing, but the results were more successful than he had dreamed. His horses won an award as the best new piece of equipment.

National publicity resulting from the 1932 convention brought him several orders and some were sold to Playland, the well-known amusement park at Rye. N. Y. At the 1933-34 Chicago sponsored World’s Fair and later the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, Hahs had horse concessions that proved a success.

Despite this run of artistic and financial success, the horse ride business appeared to go into a period of oblivion for the following decade. Several, who remember the early horses, have offered logical reasons such as World War II and difficulty in procuring materials, but the facts indicate that no one seemed willing to carry the promotional ball.

Vintage coin-operated rides (1)

The horse ride was an inexpensive operating proposition in its early days, and, like today, never seemed to wear out. The best proof of this is that Hahs’ original horses are still on location, and some are even in the original place.

The next big step in the kiddie ride development came in 1949 when Harry Julius, of the Tampa Amusement Company and who for many years has been affiliated with Royal American Shows, collared Frank Mencuri, sales manager of Exhibit Supply, and showed him a cast-iron mechanical horse made by Hahs.

Mencuri immediately became enthusiastic and had visions of the horse becoming a key unit in the modern Arcades and amusement parks. Mencuri visited Hahs in Sikeston and commissioned him to build some experimental horses and a master model. The model made was Pony Express, and went on to open new horizons for the coin horses.

Old coin horse ride - 25 cents

Following the success of the initial experiments, Hahs came to Chicago and signed a royalty agreement with Exhibit Supply. In the early part of 1950, the horse ride was still considered an arcade piece and no one seemed ready to consider its basic merchandising appeal.

As might be supposed, this phase was hit upon by accident. A new Kresge dime store was opening up in Sioux City, Iowa, and the store’s manager noticed a reference to coin-operated horses in a special issue of The Billboard. He decided to contact a horse manufacturer advertising in that issue, Exhibit Supply, and have one placed on location in the store for the opening week.

Naturally, this promotion was handled on a free ride basis, but an enterprising photographer in Sioux City started taking pictures of the kids with the store’s permission and began selling the snapshots. Approximately half of the parents requested the photos, and the experiment proved successful.

Old coin-operated horse rides (2)

Later when the store placed the horse on coin-operation, the ride receipts were so high and the lines so long that another concession was set up near the ride and included guns, cowboy outfits and related items which were sold readily. Though this was an isolated instance, the experience proved to Exhibit Supply that a whole new era for the coin horse was getting underway.

Not long after, Matty Carbone, with a lot of enthusiasm, influenced the Goldblatt and Weiboldt department stores, Chicago, that horse units were solid items to attract youngsters to their children’s departments. Prior to Carbone’s move others, including some experienced operators, had toyed with this idea, but never went through with a program.

Larry Gevert |
Larry Gevert |

The department stores’ acceptance of the horse as a trade puller proved one of the key developments of the ride’s future, and convinced most ride manufacturers that the horse could be useful in chain stores, supermarkets, drugstores and other retail outlets.

The potential for operators, too, was obvious. It was then that the much-needed promotion of the rides was launched and led to tie-ins with cowboy, movie, radio and TV stars such as The Lone Ranger, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

While most operators still feel the horse will remain the big draw down through the years, the rides coming out now featuring jet planes, speed boats, hot rod cars, a wide variety of animals such as Elsie the Cow, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, etc., will always have a profitable place on location. The first ride, other than the animal type, to prove a big draw was the space or rocket ride. These have been in production for almost a year and are just building a substantial following.

Vintage coin-operated ride-on horses (14)

Bally Space-Ship coin-operated ride

See the Bally Space-Ship in action … surging forward, gliding backward … dipping and rising … rolling from side to side … swinging and banking like a jet-fighter … and you will see why junior space-pilots prefer the Bally Space-Ship.

* Variable speed controlled by pilot

* Colorful Eye-Appeal attracts attention on location

* Colored lights flash in nose, tail, wings and dials of realistic instrument panel

* Twin Ray-Guns with exciting sound-effects

* Airblast blows from blower

* Safe, sturdy construction

* Simple mechanism

* National Rejector

Vintage coin-operated kiddie rides from the 50s (2)

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Vintage coin-operated kiddie rides from the 50s (4)

Inside vintage grocery stores & old-fashioned supermarkets of yesteryear

Atomic Space Ranger vintage ride-on toy

Soars on air – 6 different ride movements controlled by pilot

Vintage coin-operated rides (4)

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Rudolph (Santa) and Trigger (Roy Rogers) rides from 1952

1952 Vintage coin-operated ride-on toys - Rudolph and Trigger

1964's 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' was one of the musical Christmas specials that kids waited all year to see

Retro Meteor PT boat & Meteor Flying Saucer coin-operated rides

Boat ride: Speedboat movement — exciting sensation of scooting over and through waves at top speed — combined with bucking motion. Realistic sound of high-power marine engine.

Flying saucer ride: Attractive – Startling “futuristic” shape attracts immediate attention! Colorful and dramatically designed. Constant flashing lights attract play.

Vintage coin-operated rides (2)

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Scientific’s Space Ship & Ocean Liner ride-on amusements

Vintage coin-operated kiddie rides from the 50s (1)

Elsie the Cow and Lightning the horse rides

Vintage coin-operated rides (5)

The CowPony: Lifelike Western pony with all-leather western saddle

The aristocrat of the mechanical horses

Old coin-operated horse rides (1)

Wonder horse! See vintage ride-on spring horse toys from the 1960s

Ride the Champion! By Bally – Kiddie ride horse

Old coin-operated horse rides (7)

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Miss America coin-operated boat ride

Vintage coin-operated rides (3)

Vintage coin-operated kiddie rides from the 50s (5)

Old coin-operated horse rides (3)

Jellybeens4 via Twenty20
Jellybeens4 via Twenty20
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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. I remember these as a kid (and adult) in front of K-Mart stores. There were also merry-go-round ones with 3 animals. Currently, Meijer stores (Midwest) still have a mechanical horse inside their stores and they only charge a penny per ride.

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