Interaction with American Society: The Rise of Pinball

The initial popularity of pinball began with the addition of the Coin Slot, which coincided with the onset of the Great Depression. The pinball was a cheap form of entertainment for those affected by the Great Depression. [1] Machines cost about $20 but attracted many customers, so shopkeepers saw the value in including them in their establishments. [2] The end of the Prohibition Era in 1933 also helped to increase the popularity of pinball. [3] People who had made profits off of bootlegging alcohol and other prohibited contraband had to find a different way to continue making money. The Bootleggers from the Prohibition Era turned to providing gambling opportunities for those who lost money because of the Great Depression. [4] Pinball was then used as one game to generate gambling revenue.


During the early days of pinball, the game had an extremely different reputation than the family friendly image it conjures up today. In the early 1940’s , and well into the 1970’s, the game of pinball was banned in many of America’s largest and most populous cities. Before the inclusion of flippers on the game’s interface in 1947, pinball was considered a game of chance, not skill, which resorted in it being considered gambling. Due to the seemingly uncontrollable nature of the game, many players began to place bets and wagers on rounds of pinball. As a result, the heavy rotation of these coin-operated machines quickly became popular in major cities across the United States. One of those major cities happened to be Chicago and because Chicago was seen as the mob hub of the period, the game of pinball was soon associated with other nefarious activities.

Most notably, the game was banned in New York City by then mayor, Fiorello LiGuardia in 1942. [5] He believed that the game bred crime and supported juvenile delinquency as well as that the game “robbed the pockets of schoolchildren.” [6]

La Guardia actively fought against gambling for a multitude of reasons. He believed the working class need to be protected so that they would not waste their money on gambling. [7]  By removing the temptation of gambling, La Guardia believed he could help the working classes. La Guardia also had a personal reason to fight gambling. He was “the first Italian American mayor of New York” [and] “took umbrage at the association of Italians with organized crime.” [8] La Guardia hoped to diminish the stereotype of Italians being members of the Mob. The advent of American involvement in World War II, La Guardia was able to push his agenda for banning gambling and, subsequently, pinball. La Guardia was able to “frame pinball as a waste of both time and scarce materials.” [9]

La Guardia’s ban of pinball lasted from 1942 to 1976. [10] Pinball was also banned in other cities, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington D.C. [11] In areas where pinball was not banned, restrictions were put in place. For instance Wethersfield, Connecticut created an ordinance “that minors under 18 must be accompanied by an adult to play pinball.” [12] In 1974, the California Supreme Court “ruled that pinball was in fact a game of skill,” in the case Cossack v. City of Los Angeles. [13]


1. Karen Sternheimer, Pop Culture Panics: How Moral Crusaders Construct Meanings of Deviance and Delinquency, (New York: Routledge, 2015), 52.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., 57.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., 53.

8. Ibid., 55.

9. Ibid., 56.

10. Ibid., 49.

11. Ibid., 59.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., 66.