Northwestern 31 "Merchandiser"

Northwestern Corporation, Morris, IL, c. 1931, 15 1/2". This is a nicely-designed machine that in my opinion is underappreciated. The square base and round porcelainized handle on the front give it a different look from most vendors, and it's nicely proportioned. The mechanism is relatively complicated and inaccessible, making it a pain in the ass to work on, but the machine looks good.

It's made of porcelainized cast iron and is very heavy. Some color combinations I've seen are all green (this was a stock color and is the most common), black base with an orange knob and lid, black base with an yellow knob and lid, black base with a tan knob and lid, red base with a black knob and lid, all red, all black, and all yellow. I've seen others (such as black body with a green knob and lid) that didn't look right and may have resulted from swapping knobs and lids between machines. I've also seen 2 styles of baseplates, one being flat across the bottom and the other being deeper, so that the well of the baseplate extends below the bottom of the base. I think the deeper baseplate is newer, but I'm not sure. The machine pictured above has the deeper baseplate.

This model was available with and without a slug rejector, and most collectors prefer examples with slug rejectors. The knob could be on the right or left, and the gate can be in the center or left of center. According to Silent Salesmen Too, a handle on the right signifies a penny mechanism while a handle on the left denotes a penny mechanism with a slug rejector, a penny-nickel mechanism, or a nickel mechanism.

These machines are supposed to have small metal "Northwestern" tags on the lower edge of the right side, but it's often missing. Likewise, all that I've seen have a framed marquee on the front, and these are sometimes missing as well. If they're there, you can often find 2 or 3 other signs behind the one showing, just in case you want to change the product from 'confections' to 'pistachios.' This model was born a couple of years before the barrel lock but was also made after the barrel lock's birth, so a padlock or barrel lock on the lid is correct.

One caution about buying: The gears on this model were pot metal, which is notorious for twisting, cracking, and breaking apart over time. If the mechanism doesn't turn, and it's not a coin jamming it, then don't buy it unless you'll be happy with a nice-looking machine that'll never work.

Like some other Northwestern models, the 31 was sometimes private-labeled for specific vendors: Wells Systems, Ace, and R.S. Rich to name a few. These labels did not appear to be tied to any specific color combination. The name of the vendor usually appears on the front gate and/or the side metal tag. The private label adds some interest to a particular machine, as well as some value, but these are generally not considered rare and don't usually increase the value by a wide margin. If your name is Robert S. Rich then you might be willing to pay a whole bunch more for one with an R.S. Rich gate, but if you're trying to buy one you should tell the seller your name is Jim and that R.S. Rich was the guy who used to beat you up in 3rd grade. In fact, tell him also that you've never outlived the trauma caused by your repeated public humiliation way back then, and that you can't afford to pay any more for the machine because then you wouldn't be able to afford your next session of therapy; if you're lucky the seller will take pity on you and give you a nice discount. On the other hand he may call you a wimp and kick you out of his booth, so be prepared for that. Life's a risk.

This model was also adapted to an interesting add-on: The penny-drop base. The machines were always the penny version and---at least originally---were always green. I don't have a picture of one but Bill shows one on page 109 of Silent Salesmen Too, so look there for a picture and description. A well designed feature of the penny drop system is that the original baseplate and lock of the machine fit the bottom of the wood penny drop base, so by adapting a machine to the base you don't end up with a spare baseplate. This efficiency is not present with the Northwestern 33 Peanut penny drop base, which may be because the baseplate for that model is octagonal while the penny drop footprint is square.

By the way, I'd love to have a nice original example of one of a penny drop base for either the Model 31 or the Model 33 Peanut (or---dare I dream?---both), but I've never had a chance to buy one. If you have one available or know where one is, please let me you and you'll be my friend forever.

The examples above are 100% original. I traded an art deco Jergen's Lotion Dispenser for the red and black machine plus some cash. I've always liked the Merchandiser, but this was the first one that I really liked and had the chance to buy reasonably. It was the first red and black example I'd seen, and I'm sure that was part of the reason I liked it so much. The red on this is not the traditional Northwestern red, but instead is a deeper, richer red with small black flecks in the porcelain. I with they'd made other models with this porcelain, but I've seen it only on the Model 31---and on only a couple of them. This is a very scarce color combination. Conversely, green is a common color, but the condition of the green example pictured above is exemplary.

Many thanks to Dan Davids (a.k.a. "Mr. Northwestern") for his critical review and content suggestions.



©Small Vintage Vending 2003-2009