Vintage cash registers stand as a unique piece of history, says Marshall Ward OPINION Jan 28, 2019 by Marshall Ward Waterloo Chronicle. An antique National Cash Register from 1913 belonging to Joe Shannon and Bibi Ally of Wave Length in Waterloo. – Marshall Ward/Photo I’ve always considered antique cash registers to be beautiful works of art, rich in history and intricate in design.

That’s why I was fascinated to see one recently at the Wave Length Hair & Skin beauty salon in Waterloo, owned and operated by Joe Shannon and his wife Bibi Ally, who live in my neighbourhood.Joe is a writer of fiction with a passion for historical eras, and a bit of an authority on old cash registers. He told me how a saloonkeeper named James Ritty and his brother John from Dayton, Ohio, invented and patented the first mechanical cash register in 1879.In 1884 an entrepreneur named John H. Patterson bought both the cash register patents and the company, then known as the National Manufacturing Company and renamed it the National Cash Register Company, known today as NCR.
Lavishly decorated and ornately detailed, these early cash registers were both visually stunning and the focal point of many stores and businesses.

While admiring Joe and Bibi’s eye-catching brass cash register with 2,000 parts, I was intrigued to learn it was built in Dayton in 1913, during the brass era of cash registers from 1888 to 1915.From the scrolled cabinet (designed by Tiffany’s Jewelry of New York) to the fancy inlaid patterns and marble countertop, it stands as a unique piece of history in the sitting room of the Shannons’ spacious, sunlit salon.The antique cash register has been in Joe’s family since his grandparents, who were Polish immigrants, purchased and ran a neighbourhood grocery store in Detroit, on the outskirts of Hamtramck.

That’s where Joe first laid eyes on the cash register, while visiting the family store on summer vacation.
Many years later, after his grandparents had passed away, Joe and his father loaded that antique cash register into the trunk of a 1966 Pontiac Bonneville and drove it to its place of origin, Dayton, where Joe lived and worked at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.Painted a dull grey, Joe scraped the surface of the register with a steak knife to discover brass, and later had it restored for $100 by a retired tool-and-die worker, referred by the Dayton-based NCR.Interestingly, Joe would go on to work for NCR for nearly 30 years. I loved hearing how the antique cash register would follow Joe from Detroit to four different homes in Ohio to a beauty salon in Waterloo over the span of five decades. And Joe figures there are many such machines still out there waiting to be rediscovered and restored, tucked away in attics, garages and basements. From salons to saloons, the history of vintage cash registers from the brass era of cash registers is fascinating. Next time you encounter one, whether at Wave Length or any other place that displays a lovingly restored cash machine, I encourage you to take a moment to register its artistry.

Marshall Ward is a freelance writer and artist. Email is welcome at