Among all the animations, stylized graphics, 3D symbols, themes and more of today’s sophisticated online slots, you can still occasionally see a couple of retro bell and BAR symbols making their appearance across the reels. Have you ever wondered what they’re doing there? If your memory doesn’t go back far enough to remember the good old-fashioned version of modern slots, read on to discover the “why” of these original slot machine symbols.
The earliest slot machine was manufactured in San Francisco in 1894 by Charles Fey, who put his car mechanic skills to good use. The cast iron tabletop machine, around 100 of which were produced for the greater San Francisco area, was named the Liberty Bell. For anyone curious enough and who finds themselves in Nevada, there’s still an original version on display until today at the Liberty Belle Saloon in Reno.
The three-reel precursor to today’s jackpot slots could not be considered a loose slot. Tight as a drum, the reels featured hearts, diamonds and spades symbols from the card deck. The history of the original Liberty Bell, a symbol of the U.S.’s independence, is another story entirely — although, being a patriot, it’s clear why Charles Fey would have chosen it. The bell was also the “soundtrack” to his original game, as when any three of the same symbol aligned across the reels, the bell would ring, and the machine would spit out the winnings.
Three Liberty Bells won the player the jackpot of fifty cents (ten nickels) against a single nickel original stake. Additional payouts included 5c for two horseshoes, 10c for two horseshoes plus a star, 20c for three spades and 30c for three diamonds.
A large lever on the side of the machine, which gave rise to the old name for slots, a ‘one-armed bandit,’ activated the reels, but this has now given way to buttons and touch screen technology — a far cry from the 19th century saloon-bar life of slots.
The slot machine bell remained a feature of future slots, which began to be popularized in the early 20th century. Although Charles Fey initially refused to sell or lease his design, the Mills Novelty Company was somehow able to secure it and put the Mills Liberty Bell into production. By 1910, the original symbols were replaced with fruits, although the Bell often remained. By this time, it had become illegal for the machines to payout cash, but such was their popularity that they were going nowhere, so new, ingenious ways of rewarding players had to be found. This is the point at which the slot machine BAR symbol entered the scene.
So, what does BAR mean on a slot machine? By the time companies began mass-producing early slot machines — first the Mills Novelty Company and then the Industry Novelty Company — the winning of cash had become outlawed (in fact, as early as 1902, it had become illegal for machines to pay out coins.) In order to circumvent this law, machine manufacturers decided to pay players in candy bars or even bars of gum, and so the bar made its first appearance on the reels. In Mills’ early machines, there was a photograph of a rectangular bar of gum, which was later replaced by the word BAR, printed across a plain rectangle.
Fruit symbols began to appear around the same time, allegedly representing the different flavors of the gum, which is how grapes and cherries, plums and other juicy fruits came to be featured on the reels. Early bars were apparently an advert for the gum produced by the successful machine manufacturer, the Bell-Fruit Gum Company.
Another evolution in the name of slots was ‘fruit machines,’ and it seems quite obvious where that came from.
The bell sound endured, and each time there was a win, the bell sounded, and the premises on which the machine stood would be alerted to the need to make a “payment,” from their counter, of the candy or gum since the machines were now unable to dispense coins as had been the original intention.
Bells and BARs Today
Whether out of nostalgia or the need to fill space on the reels, which now are more often five than the original three of Charles Fey’s Liberty Bell, the bell and BAR remain two of the most abiding casino symbols.
Today, casino and online slots are big businesses surrounded by old myths and new strategies. Casinos employ entire strategies centered around the location of machines, and designers use psychological insights to inform their decisions regarding colors, music and gameplay in order to make games more enticing for today’s sophisticated players. In the latest games, there’s sometimes something behind the slot machine symbols’ meaning but more often than not, the symbols, characters, and features are in keeping with the games’ themes – dragons, lanterns and fans in Orient-themed games, pyramids and pharaohs in ancient Egyptian games, and so on.
BARS and bells hark back to a bygone era and bring a degree of familiarity to some gamers who like to recognize symbols from their playing past. These two iconic symbols remain a firm favorite on the reels, even when they appear incongruous in relation to the rest of the game. It’s likely they’ll be around for many years to come and they won’t be retired any time soon.
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