History of the Punchboard

Punchboards are the descendants of handmade lottery game boards, which were used in the U.S. as early as the eighteenth century. Lotteries were popular at the time, but they required a large number of ticket-buyers to be successful. Somewhere along the line an enterprising tavern-keeper found a way that he could run a lottery for just a few customers, or even just one. He constructed a game board out of wood, probably about a half an inch thick and 8 inches square. He drilled a number of holes in the board, filling each with a slip of rolled or folded paper. He probably also lettered a sign proclaiming the prizes available. He then charged patrons a fixed sum of money (probably a penny or a nickel) for a chance at several prizes or sums of cash. The patron would use a nail to push one of the slips of paper out of its hole. Each slip of paper had a number printed on it, and if the customer's number corresponded to a number listed as a winner, the customer won that prize. The punchboard was born.

Early in the nineteenth century, the lottery game board became very scarce, due largely to the greed of the operators. Gamblers realized that all too often the "big" prizes ended up in the operator's pockets. Since the boards were hand-made, usually by the operator, he could very easily know where the winning tickets were and punch them out when no one was looking. If anyone asked who won the big prize, he would just claim that it was a stranger and put a new board up the next day. Some operators found this procedure to be too time consuming, and just didn't bother to put any winning tickets in the board at all. In both cases, the players got wise and quit playing.

In the late 1800s, punchboards resurfaced with a new, modern appearance. The new punchboards were constructed out of cardboard, with paper covering the fronts and backs of the holes. This added level of complexity was intended to prevent the operator from discovering where the winners were and tampering with the board. The boards were sold with a metal stylus or "punch" for the players to use. Players responded, and the games began to appear again in the bars, drugstores, and barber shops of America.

The Punchboard or Salesboard was patented in 1905 by C. A. Brewer and C. G. Scannell of Chicago. Even though the equivalent of punchboards had been around for many years, they had never been available in such a neat and portable form. The invention of board stuffing machines and ticket folding and plaiting machines in the late 1910s was probably the key factor which allowed the punchboard industry to flourish. Patent number 780,086 very plainly shows all of the elements of a Punchboard.

Once the boards became cheap to manufacture, they literally flooded the country. Noted gambling author John Scarne estimates that 30 million punchboards were sold in the years between 1910 to 1915. He also estimates that 50 million punchboards were sold in 1939 alone, during the peak of their popularity.

Punchboard sales declined significantly after WWII, and the boards were outlawed in many states. Many manufacturers attempted to disguise the gambling nature of the boards by stating that prizes were "for trade only" and not redeemable for cash. Cigarette, cigar, and beer companies used punchboards as an advertising medium, featuring packages of cigarettes or bottles of beer as prizes on their punchboards instead of cash. While some of these boards were operated as advertising gimmicks, most were still played for cash. A few products found success with punchboard advertising, including Zippo lighters. Between 1934 and 1940 Zippo reportedly sold more than 300,000 lighters through the use of punchboard advertising.

Like most aspects of illegal gambling, punchboards attracted their share of mob figures and shady characters over the years. Probably the most famous punchboard salesman of all time is Jack Ruby, more commonly known as the man who killed Lee Harvey Oswald.


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