I remember not the day that I decided to start documenting vending machines that I saw. I have conflicting theories within myself on when it started, all valid, and all based in reality, but I have no memory of the specific impetus. But it was in February 2017 when I first actively began documenting them anywhere online, on my Tumblr, then called Vending Machina, now residing under a different name. The posts are all still up, though.
The first vending machine post on my Tumblr I remember well. This was not the first vending machine that interested me, but it was the first to which I had any sort of reaction which prompted me to go on the attack:
I loved this one. I made frequent use of this one on the bottom floor of Wescoe Hall on the University of Kansas campus, it sold cans of soda for one dollar, including a rare diet Mr Pibb and the now deceased (AND I MEAN NOW DECEASED THE NEW STUFF IS NOT AS GOOD AS THE ORIGINAL) Coke Zero available. You had to jam down one of those old manual buttons to operate it, the LED display…
And then one year they fucked a credit card reader on to the thing. That always gets to me, I know I’m a luddite but that just does not belong there (and the fees you have to pay on top of it is stupid. Of course now there are so many vending machines on the KU campus that only take credit cards, no cash whatsoever, everybody’s getting fucked there. I know it’s just like ten-twenty cents at a time but it adds up. And it’s so fucking ugly, just stapled on to the side of this old thing. Just let it be. I think that part of the reason why vending machines are interesting to me is that the technology of dispensing a can of soda hasn’t really progressed all that much in the past… I don’t know, forty years, at least not to a necessary amount that justifies throwing out an old one for a new one without good reason, so many of them are older than other pieces of technology we still see in use. Like this Coke machine was probably from the 1990s, maybe even earlier, there’s a quiet dignity and functionality to its design that slapping this big ugly screen and flashing card reader strikes at me very deeply, not so deeply that I fly off the handle, but deep enough to say that it annoys me. It doesn’t matter anymore, that machine was taken out when KU became a Pepsi campus in 2017.
It is kind of funny how that resolved itself. There was for years a pseudo-tradition, maybe more just a habit, of the KU basketball student section yelling “NO!” in response to the “Gatorade: Is It In You?” ads when they ran in the Fieldhouse because we couldn’t get Gatorade on campus during the years after KU became Coke-exclusive. We stopped doing that before I got there in 2013, but Gatorade is in them once again.
The credit card reader prompted this classic rant:
And a star was born. Now, the first interesting vending machine that I can recall seeing is this one at an antique mall in Kansas City, Missouri, which I only put on my Tumblr years later:
Ah. Old Rinks. I remember seeing this at this antique store during a visit when I was in high school. Old Rinks. Coins only! What a machine, Pepsi and Coke both, I think that’s Welch’s Grape Soda and Orange Sunkist down there too. The wood paneling, what more can you ask for?
Thirdly, and I don’t have a photo of it, and I’m waiting on my business partner and former roommate Mike to send me one if he has one, when we were touring a model unit for this apartment complex we ended up moving into, there was a model vending machine with a button to press that would dispense a generic “Light Beer”, which we thought was the funniest thing in the world, not just the idea of a vending machine that sold sodas and beers presumably to anyone but also that it had a generic “Light Beer” option. If he finds that, I’ll post it here, I found photos taken on that day but no evidence of the fabled Light Beer machine.
UPDATE: He Found It –
What a fucking piece of art there. I forgot it was Kansas City Chiefs themed. Diet Dr Pepper but no regular Dr Pepper but yes Light Beer. No, it didn’t work, that’s not the point.
This continued for years, I believe up until around Spring 2020 when I stopped, which makes sense as that was sort of a de-facto travel blog and when I stopped traveling, I stopped finding vending machines. The other reason I had it was for the purpose of travel documentation, it kind of got me to stop and take stock of the mundanity of life wherever I stopped, like there’d always be a vending machine somewhere. They don’t matter, they’re just functional, just places to quickly purchase cans of soda or snacks or something, but they’re always there, and there’s so much fluctuation in how they’re designed, how they work, what goes in them, how they’re decorated… It’s very interesting to me. Probably not to most people, but who’s fucking name is on the domain here, huh? That’s right. This is my stupid blog and I can write about how I like vending machines and compile my favorite ones here if I want:
Kinsley Township, Kansas, January 2018:
Look at how much fun that guy’s having on his mountain bike! And he’s gonna have a cold bottle of Mountain Dew when he’s all well and done. I suspect this is from the mid 1990s, before it was marketed as a youth specific drink and had more of a general outdoorsy feel to its marketing. I feel like I don’t see that many Mountain Dew specific machines, either.
Cedar City, Utah, August 2018:
See, this is what I’m interested in. It was 2018, I was at a hotel in Cedar City, Utah, and I saw these two very old vending machines from who knows how along ago? What other pieces of machinery from what I’d assume would be the the late 1980s judging by the branding on the machines were still in use then? Just the vending machines. It’s a very tenuous connection to our past but I think it’s cool that these artifacts, just by remaining functional, are still a part of our day to day lives even 20, 30+ years down the line.
Lied Center, Lawrence, KS, April 2017:
This one I liked because it was backstage at a concert hall, very out of place, next to the boxes and the helium tanks and the trash can and the bleach and also out of time, probably from the 1990s if I had to hazard a guess (still with one of those card readers slapped on there). What a cool thing, if you start noticing vending machines, you’ll have these moments of surprise when you’ll turn a corner and find one in the weirdest place.
Inverness, Scotland, June 2017:
What a selection they have here! What do we have, one chocolate bar on the top row, then like a dental dam, condoms, wet wipes, Ibuprofen, all matter of cigarettes on the bottom row of the upper section, then a collection of what appears to be lime Tango, Diet Coke, Irn Bru, and I think two flavors of Ribena? You just don’t get stuff like this in the United States. Or maybe you do, if I ever run a store or something like that I’ll have one of these. You should just be able to buy cool stuff of all sorts in a vending machine like this. I’d put pencils and old magazines and VHS tapes in there, probably one can of Budweiser. Maybe I ought to start up one of those fabled mystery vending machines like the one that used to be in Seattle that has a Wikipedia article… If you have a business in downtown Lawrence and a desire for someone to run a mystery vending machine outside your business please contact me
Murphy Hall, Lawrence, KS, August 2017:
This is more a two-panel comic than anything.
Vending machines in this alcove! Oh boy!
This was after the Pepsi takeover at KU, and as long as I was there, the coke machines that were here were never replaced. Legend has it that the French Horn players (this is the music/theatre building) wheeled in one of those old TV carts and hosted Super Smash Bros. Melee tournaments in this alcove for a period of time until the director kicked them out.
Isn’t this just it, though? I captioned that it was in a motel parking lot in Phoenix, but I don’t remember any other details about taking it, why I was at a motel in Phoenix, that sort of thing. During the day you might not notice it at all, it’d blend fully into the scenery, only under darkness does it finally stand out on its own, it’s always there for you whether you notice it or not.
I hope that illuminates why I appreciate the humble vending machine. They’re weird, they’re old, they’re out of place and they’re right where you need them to be.
I have started taking more vending machine pics and putting them on Instagram, contact me if you want to know what it is