Charles Mills took the manufacture and distribution of slot machines from small workshops to huge factory assembly lines. His company was making nearly 30,000 gaming machines per year in the early 20th century and the Mills Novelty Company continued to grow and flourish. The business continued to thrive despite challenges like restrictive legislation prohibiting gambling in some states and in 1919 the start of prohibition.

As always, the market routed around these difficulties. In jurisdictions where cash payouts were illegal slot machine operators began awarding players with packs of gum and other small prizes. One theory is that the fruit symbols on the reels represented different flavors of candy awarded as prizes and that this was the origin of the ‘cherry’ and ‘watermelon’ slot machine symbols. There’s also a theory that the famous ‘Bar’ symbol on slot machines was derived originally from the Bell-Fruit Gum Company’s logo. In some jurisdictions, the ‘candy prizes‘ could be swapped ‘under the table’ for cash.

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In 1919, Prohibition began and the sale of alcoholic beverages became illegal. Oddly enough, this time saw the Mills Novelty Company’s slot machine business booming. As speakeasies and underground bars became the norm all over America they all wanted slot machines. Since they were already operating illegally, they had no problem with offering cash prizes. More slot machines were in more places than they were before prohibition and they were growing in popularity with players. Mills continued to introduce new machines with new features like ‘double jackpots’ and improved coin acceptance to further deter the use of counterfeit coins.

Despite the heavy-handed efforts of the US government, the gambling industry continued to enjoy more and more revenue as more people all over America began to play. Prohibition proved to be very unpopular with the citizens of the United States and in a growing number of areas the local law enforcement ‘looked the other way’ as bootleggers and speakeasies went about their business. Prohibition would finally be repealed in 1933 but not before a legislative action in a sparsely populated Western state would change the gambling industry forever.


The state of Nevada legalized gambling in 1931. It represented a combination of good old Western defiance of the Federal government and a proactive step to create new revenue streams in the dusty and expansive ‘Silver State’. At first, it wasn’t a big deal nationally and it would be a couple of decades before the gambling destinations of Reno and Las Vegas would become tourist draws. Even though the gaming industry in Nevada was small by today’s standards there were a number of casinos that dotted the state. Accordingly, new businesses specializing in the manufacture, distribution and sales of gaming equipment also popped up to serve this fledgling industry.

Sadly, Herbert Mills wasn’t around to see it happen. He passed away in 1929 at the age of 57 leaving his massive fortune to his wife and eight children. The company he built would continue to grow and experience several transformations and in one form or another would continue to be a leading manufacturer of gaming and amusement equipment for decades. The last vestige of the Mills Novelty Company would close in 1980.

For much of the twentieth century, the state of Nevada had a monopoly on casino gambling in the United States. There was plenty of underground gambling throughout the country and horse racing was legal in many states but nowhere outside of the ‘Silver State’ was legal casino gambling available. The state’s casino industry would continue to grow and the popularity of real money slot machines would increase many times over.