A Brief History Of NYC Subway Vending Machines
From newspapers to candy to churros, the New York City subway system has long been a ripe and irresistible marketplace. Back in the early 20th century, an advertising entrepreneur named Artemas Ward made the astute observation that subway riders waiting on the platform were the perfect captive audience, susceptible to both boredom and impulse.
Yet as with storefronts, the retail apocalypse has hit the underground hard. Newsstands are vanishing. Earlier this year the Daily News reported that about 40 percent of the 326 retail spaces on NYC Transit property are empty or closed. In June, as part of a “push towards innovation,” the MTA began rolling out CVS-branded vending machines stocked with a diverse assortment of goods (tampons, razors, allergy medicine, 5-hour energy drinks, beef jerky, nuts, condoms, medicine, Tide-to-go) at the Chambers Street and Union Square subway stations.
This so-called “modernization” is actually ripped from an old playbook that was retired in the 1970s. As older New Yorkers may remember, the underground subway was once home to as many as 11,700 vending machines—more than the combined number at all U.S. railroad stations—that sold candy, ice cream, peanuts, cigarettes, and even fortunes. In 2014, Citylab chronicled the history of these clunky machines which, along with scales that told you your weight and horoscope for a penny, often surface in old photos of the subway and eBay.
The person who initially oversaw this vending empire was none other than the above-mentioned Ward, who during the early part of the 20th century had an exclusive contract for both vending and advertising on both elevated and underground subway platforms. As the CityLab story notes, his gross receipts for both vending and advertising over the decade leading up to 1914 were reported at $11.4 million, which would be worth around $292 million today. When he died in 1925, he bequeathed part ownership of his vending and advertising operation to Harvard University.
Subway vending remained a booming business through the 1950s, when a company named Interborough won the contract. Chiclet gum was the best seller by far, accounting for 65 percent of merchandise sold, according to a 1954 New York Times story. Falling behind it was candy, chocolate and peanuts. But the business was not without problems. There were periodic strikes by the roughly 145 men tasking with filling the machines; “Outlook Is Chewless For Subway Riders” read one headline. Theft was also a perennial issue, as was mischief by vandals and so-called “psychopaths” (one vending company was reported to have kept a list) who enjoyed jamming up the machines with slugs or paper, the latter used by those hoping to trap coins that they would come back and pilfer.
The broken machines, in turn, drew the ire of customers. In 1949, a “portly” pianist and law school student named Morton Krouse with a weakness for chewing gum and chocolate drew a triumphant victory in small claims court after winning 46 cents for all the pennies he had lost over several months to busted machines.
By the early 1970s, the enterprise, like the city itself, seemed to be in a listless state of disrepair. In 1972, the Department of Consumer Affairs reported that 62 percent of the machines were not working properly. On top of that, 57 percent of them had no identifying numbers or information, making it impossible for customers to complain about losing their money. William Lynch, a manager of Interborough, told the Times that his company purposely did not post a telephone number on their machines “because everybody in creation would be calling us.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the profits had dropped off dramatically, to half of what they were six years ago.
By the summer of 1974, Interborough decided to call it quits. The company announced that it would start removing the vending machines, which by then had dwindled to only 6,000. At the time, a Transit Authority spokesman was quoted in the Times as saying he was uncertain whether the city would seek a replacement vendor.
“The future of vending is still under review,” he said.