Antique cash registers still have a home in Laurel

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTOS | Laurel resident Peter Warns with a 1915 department store floor model with six drawers. Each drawer had a ring specific to each clerk, so an owner would know if the clerks were using the correct drawers.

A Laurel man will ring you up to add a little class to your entertainment room, or simply to make change for a dollar in style.

Peter Warns, 65, is a third-generation cash register dealer with about 200 machines, some dating back as far as the late 1800s. He is one of the country’s four premiere register restorers.

But since the Internet revolution Mr. Warns has stopped hoarding the machines.

“Back in those days, they were so hard to find that you had to buy all of them because you didn’t know if you’d ever see them again,” he said. “Now the machines find me, but I’ll still chase them.”

Who else is hunting antique cash registers?

Homeowners in search of something high-end to complement their game rooms.

Mr. Warns, who sells his registers for $2,500 to $10,000, also customizes old machines for his clients, even adding special keys for “cigars,” “billiards” or even “pint.”

“People that buy my stuff really appreciate what I do,” Mr. Warns said. “They want the best.”

Some 1.6 million of these brass and oak models were made in the early 1900s; today only 4 percent have survived.

Although he attributes his success to meticulous attention to detail and a passion for preserving history, Mr. Warns said he gives all the credit to the National Cash Register Company of Dayton, Ohio, known as NCR.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if NCR didn’t make such beautiful products,” Mr. Warns said. “They are beautiful, like artwork.”

The NCR machines are ornate, with brass, bronze, copper and nickel finishes and sturdy wooden cash drawers. Each drawer bears a brass image of NCR’s first president, John Patterson. Cranks, bells and lights are also included.

One of Mr. Warns’ machines, made in 1915 and designed for a department store, has six drawers. Each had a unique ring when it opened, and each clerk would be assigned a drawer. This helped the store owner catch his workers dipping into other drawers and stealing money.

Before cash registers were invented, business owners kept their money in cigar boxes or even just on top of a counter.
The concept of the cash register was originated in 1884 by John Ritty, who developed a counting mechanism called a “dial machine.” Only five such devices exist today.

“Ritty could never get it off the ground,” Mr. Warns said. “Then John Patterson came along.”

John Patterson, a tile business owner, founded NCR in 1886 when he attempted to address the difficulty business owners had in making a profit. Money was often either lost, misplaced or stolen — primarily by employees.

“He wanted to keep his customers from losing cash,” Mr. Warns said. “People thought he was a fool. Who ever heard of a cash register?”

One way to help business owners find out where their money was going was through a mechanism called a “thief catcher.”

Each time the register’s drawer opened, a wheel counter would increase by one number. When the business owner checked it, he was able to figure out when his register had been opened, how many times and, most likely, by whom.

“No one knew it was there except the business owner,” Mr. Warns said. “It was all about keeping people honest.”

The idea eventually caught on and cash registers started to pop up in stores across the country. Purchasing one gave you a sense of status and helped you keep your finances in order.

But not everyone was thrilled about the machines.

In 1903, NCR mailed advertisements showcasing its cash registers to business owners nationwide. But as that mail arrived, employees, usually the reason money went missing, would block them from crossing the boss’ desk.

John Patterson then decided to take “NCR” off the envelopes, but they were still intercepted because the return address was Dayton, Ohio, which gave NCR away.

The company’s third attempt to reach its customers, however, proved successful. NCR sent advertisements to personal and trustworthy contacts throughout the country and asked them to mail out the advertisements on its behalf.

“Patterson was on a mission to tell everybody they needed a cash register,” Mr. Warns said. “He wanted to help his customers with their problems of losing cash.”

A line-up of antique cash registers in Peter Warns' carriage house in Laurel.

It turns out NCR was ultimately its own toughest competition. In 1915, NCR salesmen attempting to sell new machines got the cold shoulder because business owners found nothing wrong with their original models.

John Patterson then developed a trade-in system and would have the old machines thrown out. But they were retrieved from junk yards, fixed up and put back in service. So instead, Mr. Warns said, NCR “had to watch the iron ball crush the machines.”

As a result, only 4 percent of the 1,656,000 cash registers manufactured survive.

“So few are left,” Mr. Warns said. “That adds to the mystique.”

Mr. Warns’ grandfather, Harry Hoyt Bender, known as “Chief Bender,” began working as a mechanic for NCR in 1910. Less than a decade later, he went into business for himself and opened The Harlem Cash Register Company on West 125th Street in New York City.

In addition to cash registers, Mr. Bender fixed scales, safes, coffee grinders and other machines.
Eventually, Mr. Warns’ father, Rudy, left his $150-a-week job selling office furniture and joined the family business.

As a young boy working in his father’s shop, Mr. Warns came across a cash register, and the discovery hit him “like a ton of bricks.

“I thought to myself, ‘Someday, I’m going to get my hands on a bunch of these,’ and I did,” he said. “I had this thing in my head that, someday, I’d be the guy you’d go to for brass cash registers.”

It was Bill Freeman, a mechanic at the Warns family shop and later Rudy Warns’ partner, who taught Mr. Warns how to fix registers. The first machine he restored was a rusty, two-drawer Model 34722 register.

“I learned so much with that machine,” Mr. Warns said. “I want to find the machines in the worst shape possible … I want to fix them up for future generations.”

At the waterfront home in Laurel where he lives with his wife, Jeanine, and 9-year-old son, Matthew, Mr. Warns built a Victorian carriage house to store his prize possessions. Upstairs is his home office where he works as an executive recruiter for high-tech companies.

Throughout the day, Mr. Warns toggles between his office and workspace, where he restores not only cash registers but also scales and safes.

“I really do love them all,” he said.

But if he had to choose a favorite, Mr. Warns said he’d have to pick his 1914 Class 500 register. Made for an automobile company, it is the largest of the NCR machines and can handle thousands of dollars.

The rarest machine he owns is a NCR wooden Model 2. He purchased it 15 years ago for $2,000. It cost him another $2,000 to restore it.

As Mr. Warns continues with his antique cash register business, he said, “It would be nice to see the fourth generation take over.”

When he met his son at the school bus one day this month, Mr. Warns asked if he would be interested in going into the antique cash register restoration business.

Matthew exclaimed, “Yes!”

“Wow,” Mr. Warns said. “That’s the fastest I’ve ever heard you respond.”

“I’ve said it a million times,” Matthew said. “But I don’t know where all of the parts go.”

“You’ll learn,” Mr. Warns said. “It just takes time.”

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