Puritans Against Pinball

Jan 20 2013 @ 5:31pm

In a fascinating essay on the history of the American arcade, Laura June uncovers the fraught history of the pinball machine, which, in 1942, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia actually banned throughout the city – a prohibition that lasted until 1976:

Though probably overstated at the time, pinball’s relationship to organized crime certainly existed. The end of Prohibition didn’t bring an end to the mob, but it did require the diversification of portfolios, adding the distribution of vending machines, cigarette machines, jukeboxes, and pinball to the “amusements” of booze and prostitution. LaGuardia’s mission gave voice to sentiments which hearkened back to the moral outrage of the Prohibition era, too, most of which had nothing to do with organized crime. Pinball, a “pointless game,” was attractive to children, and this worried parents and “concerned citizens.” Seth Porges, a writer and expert in the history of pinball, says there were “off the books” justifications for the banning of pinball in addition to those that were actually used to make it illegal. On the one hand, he says, “they successfully made the case that pinball was a type of gambling,” but under the surface was a much more temperance-fueled, nearly religious belief that pinball was a tool “from the devil,” which corrupted youths. Newspapers across the country essentially nodded their heads in agreement as games of all sorts — billiards, and even “old ladies’ bridge clubs” — were held up to scrutiny. At the time, it was easy to make the case that pinball was morally corrupting, at least insofar as it was a gateway to gambling, as well as a complete waste of time. Many large cities followed in New York’s footsteps, including Los Angeles and Chicago (San Francisco is one of the only major cities to have never banned the game), and pinball bans became fairly commonplace across the United States.

Conor chips in his two cents:

Mayor LaGuardia wasn’t an idiot or an incompetent. Nor were World War II-era New Yorkers dumb. The fact that their zealous paternalism robbed fellow citizens of an amusement, despite its by-now-self-evident harmlessness, isn’t a reason to condemn them. It is, rather, a reason to tread carefully when we codify our own judgments into binding municipal law. Pinball bans seem unbelievably absurd today. What regulations will seem equally needless to future generations?

(Panoramic view from inside a pinball machine, by Flickr user robinvanmourik)