Throughout my blog I occasionally mention that I have been intrigued by a few things that most would find mundane. Here I am going to talk about one of these such things and that is cash registers. I am writing much of this down now because as I grow older I fear losing some of what I remember. In addition, whilst there seems to be a growing community of people interested in the old department store chains, many of these folks are younger than me and don’t remember these things from the 1970s and 1980s. This is an effort to share information.
I have a lot to attribute to my interest in cash registers, more specifically mechanical cash registers made by Sweda. My interest in these behemoths (I’ve heard them described as “dinosaurs” by quite a few people) led to my interest in computers. In their own way they were computerized. And even though I am a gadget geek and love technology through and through, I still to this day maintain an interest in these cash registers. In fact, I have a Sweda Model 46 (grocery store model) that I am currently restoring. In addition, I believed I honed my skills of observation with my attempts to learn about the whole checkout process at a relatively young age. These observational skills have served me well as an adult.
My interest in all of this really took hold in 1977 or 1978 (ironically, my memory is a little hazy on the exact year) with the opening of the local Ames Department Store. Ames #80 opened with great fanfare in the little town I grew up in. Mom took my sister and me to the grand opening celebration. The store was small by today’s standards; there were only four regular checkout lanes and a service desk. Because of the anticipated increase in traffic during the grand opening, temporary checkouts were setup on card tables; I remember Mom giving me a couple of dollars to buy a toy jetliner (I can still picture it, it was a plastic replica of a 737 in red and blue). She let me go through the checkout without her assistance at one of these temporary setups. She waited off to the side to make sure I didn’t falter. I immediately noticed that the cash register resembled those that used by the two small grocery stores that were close to the house and more importantly, that they sounded the same. However, I could see that they had many more buttons. I found this very interesting.
As I grew older and made many visits to Ames, my interest in the whole checkout process increased ten-fold. From reading notes that cashiers had taped to the registers as reminders on various things (much like Kmart’s “TYFSAK”), comparing price tags to receipts and making careful observations whilst watching the cashier do his or her job, I became very aware of how things were working as the cashier punched the buttons on these fascinating machines. I was always delighted to go to other stores in the Ames chain (Shop City in Syracuse and a former Big N in Watertown) because it gave me an opportunity to compare and contrast with the practices at store #80. Most everything was common across the board.
1. The cash registers were made by Sweda of Litton Industries and basically the same as those found at a grocery or general store of that era. However, whereas some models at these stores could differentiate between taxable and non-taxable items, the registers at Ames could not. Taxable items had to be rung up first. The registers did have an extra mechanism attached to the left side of the machine. There were extra keys which were three rows of number keys, arranged like the monetary keys, except that they were just three columns of single digit number. For example, the bottom row of keys would have: 1 1 1 $10 $1 10 1, the second row 2 2 2 $20 $2 20 2, and so on. If you have a “zero” in the price (for example, $1.09), you just skipped that column, for example, the cashier would press the ($1) and (9) keys. The display showed the extra numbers in red in what would be the ten-thousand, thousand and hundreds position of the display. There were notes taped to the registers to pay attention to the hundreds position (even though it was in red) when subtotaling or totaling the machine.
2. The “extra parts” attached to the left side of the cash register was actually a mechanism that punched or printed a ticker-tape like tape. That ticker tape was an optical tape that was fed into an (assumedly) IBM mainframe somewhere, most likely for inventory control. The extra numbers to the left of the monetary keys were used for inventory control. I could see this tape through a little window in the mechanism but I couldn’t ever make out what was being printed or punched.
3. While these registers, in pretty much the same configuration, were found at other department stores such as Jamesway and Westons, Ames was the only chain that I found using three numbers for their department numbers, which Ames called a class number. As a quick side note, Jamesway, Zayre, Hills and Westons (which were all competitors to each other) all used department 94 to denote sales tax. Why they all used the same department number is a mystery to me. Ames used class 900. Stores that Ames took over (one chain being Big N), used NCR cash registers set up in a similar configuration. Assumedly, the optical tape was printed or punched in the same manner so it didn’t really matter what manufacturer made the actual register, though the NCR registers had a tax button that was used in addition to the class 900 entry. The Sweda registers were incapable of figuring change, which was not uncommon in that era.
4. Non-clothing items were “single pass” items, that is only the class and price were punched into the register to ring up the item. For example, a candy bar was rang up as class 672 for $0.39. The cashier punched in 6 7 2 on the left of the keyboard and (30) (9) on the right side. (The last column tripped the motor without pressing the motor bar, whereas to ring up a $0.50 item, (50) and then the motor bar would have to be pressed – the motorized cents keys were a feature called Power Penny). Clothing items were “double pass” items. Clothing was labeled with a SKU and a class, for example SKU 112 class 237. To ring this up, the cashier would have to punch in the item twice (or two “passes”). The first pass involved pressing “NR”, the SKU and then the motor bar. The second pass involved pressing “CM”, the CLASS and then the price. Depending on the age of the register, “NR” was sometimes “NA” and “CM” would differ in abbreviation as well. I remember that shoes were not a double pass item, instead a two-piece price ticket was separated with half going into a slot in the checkstand. (By the way, shoes were class 991, and yes I can name quite a few classes from memory).
5. Ames moved registers between stores depending on availability (probably after repair). Some were marked just “SWEDA” with the Litton Industries logo and others were marked “MONROE | SWEDA”; assumedly this was based on the age of the register. All the registers were numbered with a three digit number that had nothing to do with the actual checkout lane number. The register number appeared on the receipt at the end of each entry. There would be a masking tape label on the side of the till tray linking the two together, for example, at store #80 checkout one had register 984 (as confirmed by a receipt I kept for a long while) and the till was marked “001-984”. Older registers from other stores were occasionally brought in and they stamped the receipt with the old Ames logo (letters in blocks), newer registers just said “Thank you” at the top and “Call again” at the bottom. I would say that the registers at the grand opening of the store were not new. You could easily tell the difference in age of the registers by color, the sound of the register and the amount of wear and tear on it.
6. The X and Z functions of the registers (daily total reports) appeared to be the same as their standard counterparts, however, some Sweda models have keys for “X down” and “X up” and “Z down” and “Z up” on some registers. The one Sweda register I have does not have this as it is grocery store model, so I don’t know what the difference between “up” and “down” is on these reports.
7. As mentioned before, aside from the inventory control features of these models, the cash register functioned just like any standalone Sweda mechanical cash register. The last row of monetary numbers (cents) were motorized to aid in speedy entry (Power Penny). Pressing the motor bar by itself would display and print the subtotal and there was a “TOTAL” button that had to be pressed with the motor bar to open the drawer and complete the order. Change was calculated by the cashier and was done using the “counting up” method that was common in the day. (Cash drawers would often be arranged opposite of what is common today, with the small denominations to the left and the larger to the right to aid in counting up from the total to the amount tendered.) The receipt used the same paper and printed in the same style as the standalone counterparts. The service desk had a bigger model register which printed on a double-wide tape, but unfortunately I don’t remember much about that setup. The service desk processed layaways at the time.
I no longer have a receipt to scan in and share but I have replicated one as pictured below. The numbers in italics actually appeared in italics on the receipt and denote the class number. The “double pass” items rarely appeared as two entries on a receipt; I can think of only two occasions that I noticed this as a kid. Usually only the last pass of the double pass entry appeared on the receipt.
When Ames moved from these mechanical machines to the state-of-the-art (at the time) IBM 3680 computerized system, my interest in computers kicked into overdrive. I had always hoped to get my hands on one of the Sweda mechanical registers because I found them to be most fascinating but never got the chance. While I have a grocery version of the Monroe/Sweda Model 46 that I am restoring (and am learning more and more about each time I work on it), I am still looking for the inventory control version as described above.
Here is a video I made when I picked up the Monroe/Sweda Model 46 for my collection.