William Worthington, NMAH Division of the History of Technology
The Lemelson Center sponsored the videohistory documentation of one of the last surviving mechanical cash carrier systems. The videotaped interviews and still photographs are part of the growing collection of invention archives gathered by the Center and administered by the NMAH Archives Center. The following is curator Bill Worthington's account of his work on the Lamson Cash Carrier.
Some mechanical inventions are so well thought out and trouble-free that they almost never need to be replaced. The Lamson Cash Carrier in Lowns Department Store in Penn Yan, New York, is a good example of one such machine. You see, it was in service for nearly 100 years, being used every day.
The cash carrier was invented in the late-19th century as a business tool. It provided a mechanical means for moving cash, sales slips, and change, by way of overhead wires, between the sales clerks and the cashier. Spring loaded senders launch monorail-like cars along the wires with the pull of a rope. Cash is carried in a wooden cup that locks to the car and sales slips are held in the grip of a large metal clip on its bottom. Piano wire routes, hung below the ceiling on rods, lead from all parts of the store to the centrally located cashier's desk where change is made and sales are recorded. To the consternation of some, there are no cash registers.
At one time these systems were widely used and found in retail stores throughout the country. But today, few examples remain and hardly any are in daily operation. What made this example of special interest to us was that its life was coming to an end; Lowns Department Store closed for good in late October 1995.
We were unable to discover a film record of the operation of this basic type of materials handling equipment. As a result, we went to Penn Yan and created a video record of it and interviewed the folks who used it. In the process we learned why what seems to be an outmoded relic from another era was kept, maintained, and used.
For the last 50 years, the cash carrier has been cared for by the store's owner James Curbeau. So good was the system's design that he continued to rely on the Lamson because it was trouble free and did its job well. In fact, what little work had been required was taken care of with nothing more than a screwdriver and pair of pliers.
This antiquated business tool, however, was not the reason for the store's closing. Instead, changes in shopping habits seem to be the cause. Folks would rather shop in large multi-department retail outlets. Funny thing is, most of them are organized around centralized cashiers-something the Lamson Cash Carrier System had 100 years ago.
Originally published in Winter 1996.