Pinball in L.A.:

The High Window, Chapter 13



"Hold the wire a minute," I said. I put the phone down on the shelf and opened the booth door and stuck my head out, filling my chest with what they were using for air in the drugstore. Nobody was paying any attention to me. Up front the druggist, in a pale blue smock, was chatting across the cigar counter. The counter boy was polishing glasses at the fountain. Two girls in slacks were playing the pinball machine.


Pinball players, 1940


In the 1940s, pinball machines were commonly considered immoral and were banned in many parts of the country. Unlike today's models, early machines had no flippers. The player launched a ball onto the playing surface with a cuestick or spring-plunger and scored points when the ball fell into numbered holes. The only way to control the ball once it was in play was to nudge or shake the machine, a practice soon put to an end by the introduction of tilt-detection devices. Pinball games were first introduced in the late 1920s, and their popularity soared during the Depression. In 1933 the first "pay-out" machines appeared; little different from slot machines, these games automatically dispensed coins when a certain score was reached or particular target hit.

By the middle of the decade pinball had come under attack as a immoral amusement and corrupting influence on youth. As pinball gambling became more common, rumor began linking the machines to underworld syndicates. Los Angeles made pinball illegal in 1939. The introduction of flippers in 1947 and the abandoning of cash or mechandize prizes in the 1950s made pinball much more of a game of skill and amusment, but the suspicion against it remained strong through 1960s. Los Angeles's ban on the machines was not repealed until 1972.

The girls Chandler is describing are not only wearing slacks but also playing an illegal gambling game--clear signs of a disreputable drugstore.

Photograph: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USF34-029481-D DLC