Antique Cash Registers: Their Evolution, Beauty & Value

Updated May 27, 2021
Antique cash register

It's the mundane technology in life that people often take for granted, with cash registers being one of these numerous modern conveniences. Despite this oversight, antique cash registers are incredibly popular among collectors because of their satisfying mechanisms and beautifully ornate designs. Take a look at how these massive calculating machines turned into the streamlined devices used today.

The Mechanical Cash Register Is Born

In 1879, a Dayton, Ohio, saloonkeeper named James Ritty and his brother John, patented the first mechanical cash register. The purpose of the invention wasn't to finish calculations with greater ease, but rather to stop dishonest employees from helping themselves to extra cash from the cash drawer when no one was looking. Although the brothers developed several different cash register models, it was their "Incorruptible Cashier" that met with the most success. This cash register had:

  • Metal taps that showed the amount of the sale when they were pressed
  • An adder that totaled all of the key presses for the entire day
  • A bell that rang up each sale

The National Cash Register Company

In 1884, John H. Patterson bought the then called "The National Manufacturing Company" and its cash register patents, renaming it the "National Cash Register Company," which is now known as the NCR. Within a few years of this acquisition, cash registers developed to include that paper rolls which recorded the sales, and then in 1906, some registers were even being manufactured with electric motors.

One of the many business strategies that Patterson employed within his company was making all their cash registers visually attractive. Focusing on creating machines that had both a functional (theft deterrent to wayward employees) and aesthetic purpose, Patterson was able to draw in more and more clients as the years passed. The National Cash Register Company's success rapidly grew, and Patterson quickly overtook most of his competition and dominated the cash register market. In fact, by 1920 the company had sold more than two million cash registers.

An Antique Cash Register's Appearance

Most antique cash registers are rather heavy and bear a passing resemblance to a standard typewriter with their circular keys and stepped-key designs. These machines appeared rectangular from the customer's point-of-view, bearing unique designs alongside the sides and back of the machine's case, sometimes bearing manufacturing or company logos. Similarly, the tops of these machines often bore the name of their manufacturer and/or model in easily discernable print, making identification immediate.

Old Fashioned Cash Register

Significant Cash Register Manufacturers

While the National Cash Register Company of Springfield, Illinois was by-far the most prevalent and prolific cash register manufacturer of the late-19th and early 20th centuries, there are other notable brands that you can still find extant examples of to add to your collection:

  • National Cash Register Company (NCR)
  • Hallwood
  • Chicago
  • Ideal
  • Boston
  • Remington
  • Lamson
  • Sun

Antique Cash Registers' Design Characteristics

As a focal point of many small shops and business, antique cash registers were beautifully detailed and sometimes lavishly decorated. Some of the most exquisite examples of these early machines have cabinets made of highly polished:

  • Brass
  • Bronze
  • Bronze with black oxide
  • Copper
  • Antiqued copper
  • Silver plate
  • Gold plate
  • Nickel plate
  • Flat metal, which was painted with enamel designs or detailed engraving
Vintage Cash Register On Desk

Natural Materials That Were Used

Wooden cabinets often had fancy inlaid patterns made of various types of veneers and burled veneers. Examples of the types of wood used for the cash register cabinets include:

  • Black walnut
  • Birch
  • Oak
  • Quarter sewn oak
  • Mahogany

Other Notable Features

Other parts of these cash registers that were generally nickel plated, including the:

  • Knobs
  • Lid counters
  • Dust covers
  • Bill weights
  • Locks

Antique Cash Register Values

Considering antique cash registers are complex pieces of machinery that involve lots of small pieces and mechanisms, the costs associated with owning one of these can be high. Mint or near-mint registers are worth a few thousand dollars, with NCR being the most valuable collector's brand. Interestingly, there does seem to be a split among cash register collectors with some purchasing only NCR machines and others collecting only "off-brand" models. Yet, the values generally remain the same as determined by condition, rarity, and manufacturer.

For instance, one early 20th century National Cash Register from Mexico is listed for a little over $4,000 in an online auction, and a National Model #33 circa 1895 is listed for a little over $3,000 by another retailer. While having these antique registers restored will bring the values slightly down, restoration doesn't decrease them so significantly as to warrant leaving those that're rusted or incomplete in disrepair.

Antique adding machine

A Unique Piece of History

Unlike some antiques, old cash registers exude a sense of a bygone era, making them perfect decoration pieces for people's homes and small businesses. The best part is, if you find one of these cash registers in perfect working order, you even have the chance to put your aesthetic investment to good use.

Antique Cash Registers: Their Evolution, Beauty & Value