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The childhood joy of Mechanical Servants

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I can remember commuting from Albany, New York, to Springfield, Massachusetts, every Thanksgiving as a child and traveling the NYS Thruway and the Massachusetts Turnpike to get there. Being part of a large family, we sat in the rear-facing third seat of our Ford Country Squire station wagon, and we knew that inevitably one of us seven kids would at some point during the trip need to use the facilities at one of the rest areas. There was one at New Baltimore on the Thruway, and two others in Blandford and Ludlow, Massachusetts, on the Mass Pike.

In anticipation of this eventuality, my older brother and I would take a quarter or two (a week’s salary!) from our allowance, cubby-holed away in our piggy bank, or somewhere else where it could not be “borrowed” by the other, and hope that we would have to stop along the way. When we did, we would both make a mad dash for the Mechanical Servant vending machines that were prominently displayed in the lobbies of these waystations. The experience was like an early Christmas for us. The Mechanical Servant vending machines were chock-full of items that could captivate us for the rest of the trip and well into the next week, if necessary. Contained in the vending machine were games, toys, emergency items, grooming products, jewelry, sewing kits, just about anything that would fit inside a 4-inch-long by 1-inch-tall box.

The Mechanical Servants Company of Chicago began using vending machines to sell these items in 1955, and placed them in rest areas, gas stations, motels, and other establishments throughout the East Coast. These machines were serviced by route drivers, who refilled them with the bountiful products on a regular basis. Most of the items were mass-produced in Hong Kong, but that made little difference to a young child growing up in the early Sixties. Hell, you could complete your entire Christmas shopping list with just a handful of quarters. A new pocket comb for Dad, a bracelet or necklace for Mom, toys and games for the siblings, some aspirin or a sewing kit for Grandma, new handkerchiefs for Grandpa, and you were done!

The Mechanical Servant Company, at one time, also recycled old cigarette machines to be used for vending their products, back when you could buy a cigarette machine for next to nothing. As healthy political correctness became the norm, however, the company has long-since scrapped its vending machine approach to sales.

They are still in business as a company named Convenience Valet, now located in Melrose Park, Illinois. The Convenience Valet name was adopted in 1994, and they are still selling the same type of convenience items in kiosks in highway rest areas, airports, hospitals, and local convenience stores. Though not quite as glamorous as the method the company employed during my childhood when a trip to one of its vending machines was a highlight of any long interstate traveling–and the items nowhere near the price of one week’s salary per item–the approach has surprisingly survived all of these years.

And I am happy to say that I still own a few of those 25-cent items I purchased back in the Sixties (mostly the car-puzzle key chains), and I’ll bet my Mom still has the shamrock necklace I gave her for Christmas in 1965, too.

Several vendors still sell new-old-stock Mechanical Servant items at online auction sites, too, if you wish to relive your childhood memories.