How Pearl Harbor Led to a War on Pinball

Getty Images
Getty Images

On April 2, 1976, 28-year-old magazine editor Roger Sharpe stood before a pinball machine inside the New York City Council chambers, holding the future of the game in his hands. Pointing to a spot on the machine, he announced, “If I pull this plunger back just right, the ball will go down this center lane.” Pinball’s Babe Ruth was calling his shot. Sharpe pulled back the plunger and let the ball fly.

Back in 1933, by Prohibition’s end, temperance types had found a new target: pinball. One of the game’s biggest opponents was New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who swept into office that year on an anti-gangster platform. Promising to “drive the bums out of town,” LaGuardia started by cracking down on mafia-run slot machines. When mobsters replaced slots with pinball machines, he waged a years-long campaign to ban those too.

To pinball novices, the game looked like a crapshoot, completely impervious to a player’s skill. The fact that some machines offered up to $2 payouts to winners only amplified the gambling confusion. In LaGuardia’s view, pinball picked the “pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money."

LaGuardia’s crusade got a boost when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. With America at war, LaGuardia argued that pinball machines weren’t just a corrupting influence; they were artillery in camouflage, a waste of metal.

On January 21, LaGuardia got his wish. A Bronx court declared pinball to be gambling even when no money was at stake. Police rounded up 3,000 machines over three weeks of Prohibition-style raids.

War Machines

In newsreel-ready stunts LaGuardia smashed machines with a sledgehammer before the pieces were dumped into the city’s waterways. The New York Times headline read "Pinball Machines to Help Win War." The contribution was real. The military received 10,000 pounds of scrap metal courtesy of pinball machines, enough to make four 2,000-pound bombs. As for the machines’ legs, thousands were turned into billy clubs and distributed to police.

Within the span of a few years, pinball had been banished from communities across the country, including Los Angeles and Chicago, the heart of pinball culture. But just like the prohibition of alcohol, instead of stopping the game, the ban drove pinball underground into seedy places like sex shops. Hollywood even adopted pinball as a standard prop, using the machines to give street cred to rebellious characters.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that pinball mounted a slow comeback. In 1974, Los Angeles overturned its ban. In 1975, the film adaptation of The Who’s Tommy, the story of a “pinball wizard” with “crazy flipper fingers,” renewed interest in the game. If kids couldn’t play Bally’s Tommy-themed pinball game in their hometown, they could at least see the movie.

When the New York City Council finally held a hearing to reconsider the decades-old pinball ban in April 1976, the game’s advocates asked Sharpe, an expert player, to prove that the game relied on skill and not chance. The GQ editor had learned to play in college and had honed his skills on contraband machines in New York. He would go on to literally write the book on the game, 1977’s effusively titled Pinball!

After he called his shot, with an entire courtroom watching, Sharpe sent the ball exactly where he’d pointed. It was a true skill shot: The council’s committee voted unanimously in pinball’s favor.

This article originally appeared last year in mental_floss magazine.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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Florence’s Plague-Era Wine Windows Are Back in Business

A wine window in Florence's Via Santo Spirito.
A wine window in Florence's Via Santo Spirito.

Many bars and restaurants have started selling takeout cocktails and other alcoholic beverages to stay in business—and keep customers safe—during the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, 17th-century Florentines are surely applauding from their front-row seats in the afterlife.

As Insider reports, a number of buildings in Florence had been constructed with small “wine windows,” or buchette del vino, through which vendors sold wine directly to less affluent customers. When the city suffered an outbreak of plague in the 1630s, business owners recognized the value of these windows as a way to serve people without spreading germs. They even exchanged money on a metal tray that was sanitized with vinegar.

Wine not?sailko, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Things eventually went back to normal, and the windows slowly fell out of fashion altogether as commerce laws evolved. This year, however, they’ve made a comeback. According to Food & Wine, there are currently at least four in operation around Florence. Osteria delle Brache in Piazza Peruzzi is using its window to deliver wine and cocktails, for example, and the Vivoli ice cream shop, a go-to dessert spot since 1929, is handing out sweet scoops and coffee through its formerly dormant aperture.

Apart from the recent resurgence of interest, the wine windows often go unnoticed by tourists drawn to the grandeur of attractions like the Uffizi Gallery and the Florence Cathedral. So in 2015, locals Matteo Faglia, Diletta Corsini, and Mary Christine Forrest established the Wine Window Association to generate some buzz. In addition to researching the history of the windows, they also keep a running list of all the ones they know of. Florence has roughly 150, and there are another 100 or so in other parts of Tuscany.

They’re hoping to affix a plaque near each window to promote their stories and discourage people from defacing them. And if you want to support their work, you can even become a member of the organization for €25 (about $29).

[h/t Insider]