Midvale • At first glance, Clark Phelps’ Amusement Sales on the north end of Midvale’s historic Main Street resembles a typical cluttered antique store. Antique men’s magazines, ancient slot machines, fun old arcade games, brass spittoons and a variety of historic signs can be seen scattered near the front of a store that opens most mornings.
What makes this place different is that it contains what is more than likely the world’s largest collection of punchboards.
My grandfather Nick Ruga owned a West Temple bar in downtown Salt Lake City years ago. As a youngster in the 1950s, I sneaked in there once or twice with my dad. But I remember Nick bringing home punchboards and allowing us kids to have at them. In the days long before video games and computers and when there were only three television stations, these simple gambling boards entertained us for hours.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Phelps’ dad, Gene, may have sold Nick some of those boards. You would see them in diners, corner grocery stores and, as a Tribune report pointed out, even at the Hotel Utah newsstand.
Phelps sent me a vintage 1946 punchboard. I walked it around the office and, much to my surprise and a little bit of chagrin, hardly any of my co-workers had ever seen one.
So what exactly is a punchboard?
Phelps described it this way:
“Punchboards are a self-contained game of chance made of pressed paper, containing holes, with coded tickets inside each hole. For an agreed amount, the player uses a ‘punch’ to extract the ticket of his or her choice. Prizes are awarded to winning tickets.”
Though they are a form of gambling, the authorities ignored them for years, most likely because not a lot of money was involved. A punch could sell for as high as $1, but most were a quarter or less. They were usually a moneymaker for business owners because they ranged in size and number of punches, ranging from 100 to 10,000 on a single board.
In addition to cash, prizes could include plush toys, candy, cigars, cigarettes, cash, jewelry, radios, clocks, cameras, sporting goods, toys, lighters, beer, silver dollars and keychains. One of Phelps’ antiques offered 10 gallons of gas.
They had catchy names such as Lucky Lulu, Two Bit Tillie, Barrel of Winners, Thousand Dollar Payoff, Break the Bank, More Smokes , Half Slug Tommy, Chief Bucks, Cherry Charley, Dixie Special, Fin and Sawbuck and Dangling Duckets.
Some of the graphics, especially on boards promoting the war effort in the ’40s, are kitschy art.
Since gambling was obviously illegal in Utah, punchboard users got around the law with gimmicks such as a checkerboard on the back that a 5-year-old could probably figure out, giving a piece of candy out with every chance, photos of bathing beauties on each punched piece of paper or an easy-to-answer question, which made it a game of knowledge.
Andy Pazell, who works with Phelps, said his dad used to play them at places such as the Junction Lanes or Nibley golf course, where Andy remembers his father always managing to win some golf balls.
“In 1979, [law enforcement] turned it off like a tap,” said Phelps, who still hasn’t found out why the crackdown came. “They were never really legal to play because of the intent to gamble with them.”
In fact, they are not even legal in Nevada.
Phelps started collecting them by using his dad’s old stock, making a little money selling them to hobbyists. With the boards outlawed, he found he could purchase large numbers of them at giveaway clearance prices. Now he sells them mostly on the Internet at his website, www.ClarkPhelps.com, to collectors and nostalgia buffs.
He estimates that he owns between 8,000 and 10,000 of the boards. Some of the classics, with prizes such as silver dollars or classic cigarette lighters inside, sell for as much as $300. The smaller ones go for as little as $5.
The problem is that most people over 55 have no clue what a punchboard is.
“Nostalgia sells,” he said. “But nobody remembers them.”
As for me, I can’t wait to take home one of the boards I purchased from Phelps so I can spend hours punching out the 1,200 tiny pieces of paper inside.