Cha-ching! Antique Cash Registers Ring Up Big Sales

Necessity is the mother of invention! And when it is necessary to stop people from stealing from you, then you become an inventor. Thus is the story of saloon owner James Ritty of Dayton, Ohio—the inventor of the cash register.

James Ritty was a saloon owner who was fed up with his employees taking money from him. So he did some research, tested some ideas, and finally patented a variation on the adding machine. His new machine registered all of the cash that came into his saloon and the cash register was born. The mechanism for the cash register was patented in 1883 and manufacturers like the National Cash Register Company got the machines to market shortly thereafter.

To solve Ritty’s problem and that of many store owners in the late 1800s and early 1900s, each employee would be required to take transactions using an assigned drawer—typically marked A, B, D, or E (a “C” drawer designation was omitted). Keys on the cash register corresponded to these drawers and when the appropriate lettered key was engaged a bell would ring and the drawer would pop open to accept the cash payment. The cash till was manually operated using punch keys and a hand crank lever at the machine’s side. At the end of the day, if a particular drawer was short on cash—for instance, drawer “A” which was assigned to employee Mary—then the shop owner would look to Mary to explain why the machine registered one total and the drawer reflected a different total.

In the antiques marketplace, some of the best known machines of this kind were made by National Cash Register Company, the company that was established after Ritty sold out to Jacob Eckert of Cincinnati Ohio. Eckert later sold his National Mfg. Company to John Patterson who renamed it National Cash Register Company. He made improvements to the machines.

Traditionally, National cash registers of gleaming brass date to the early 20th Century. The till’s compartments within the cash register at this time period were oversized to accommodate the size of Edwardian bank notes of the day. These objects make great decorative accessories in the home. Interior decorators integrate them into children’s rooms and dens as fun and functional storage cabinets. The hand crank and bell makes for a lively addition to any room.

The bell alerted the shop owner to the fact that a sale was taking place. Motorized cash registers were invented in 1906 by an employee of the National Cash Register Company which moved us closer to the cash registers of today.

Other attributes included both red and black keys (a nod to the idea of a business being in the red or the black), a change key, a paid out key, and a key which was punched when a customer made a payment on account or as in today’s terminology “accounts receivable”. There was also an attached paper roll holder which provided a slip documenting the transaction. These slips or receipts not only made certain that there was not theft on the part of the employee but it also ensured that employees charged customers the correct amount.

These objects of days gone by bring good money with collectors. Depending on their condition, National Cash Registers could command as much as $3,000 with all of its parts in working condition dating from the 1905-12. Decorative elements attract collectors to pay more for those cash registers with Art Nouveau style motifs such as organic forms, scrollwork, and attached till drawer cabinetry.

The highest appraised values for antique cash registers are those with extensive decoration in working condition. Replacement keys, damaged bells, or warped wooden till drawers impact value negatively. When it comes to old cash registers, beautiful designs make collectors go cha-ching!

Celebrity Ph.D. antiques appraiser, author, and award-winning TV personality, Dr. Lori presents antique appraisal events nationwide. To learn more about your antiques, visit or call (888) 431-1010.


1. National cash registers are often uncovered in abandoned general stores, flea markets, yard sales. They must be in good shape to bring good value. (Photo credit:


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