Fortunetelling Automata

June 8, 2018

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In my collection is an old piece of ephemera, a small card folder reading, “Princess Doraldina’s Prophecies.” I’ve had it for several years, stashed with some fortune-telling items. I finally decided to find out more about it. Here’s where my search led.

Princess Doraldina was an arcade automaton fortune teller. Made by the Doraldina Corp., of Rochester, NY, ca. 1928, it consisted of a tall cabinet of stained oak, the upper, glass-fronted portion featuring a three-dimensional Gypsy figure. She heaved her chest, rolled her eyes, and waved her hand over cards—all for a nickel, whereupon a card (like the one in my collection) was dispensed from the  slot below.

Such fortunetelling machines were common by the turn of the last century, bearing names like “Esmerelda,” “Mlle. Zita,” “Zoltar,” “Zelda,” and others. They usually operated for a penny or nickel, although apparently the prices increased to 25¢ or 50¢ with time. There were many variants, including countertop and pedestal styles, crank-operated and even talking models. (See “Explore . . .” 2018.)

Inside my small (21/2” by 41/8”) “Princess Doraldina’s Prophecies” folder is a drawing of a hand showing the various palmistry features. On the facing page is a reading that could apply to anyone: “Your success in life depends on your own efforts. . . . You will find joy in the struggle as well as the result. Be hopeful and courageous. . . . You are a fair speciman [sic] of a good all around individual.” On the back page is a list of the months with the birth stone for each.

Over the years I have not only tested various psychics, mediums, astrologers, palmists, and the like, but I have also had some fun—serious amusement, actually—checking out their coin-operated versions. One was an “Electronic Horoscope” in the arcade of a carnival midway. The machine supposedly scanned the lines of one’s hand, then—somehow—converted that into a horoscope reading. Although two persons would get different (platitudinous) readings, I decided to apply a simple test: I obtained two readings for the same hand, and, revealingly, they were completely different. I then tried again, without placing a hand on the machine at all, and yet a printout was still produced.

Thus the device was shown to be nothing more than a pretense. It scanned and determined nothing, but simply dispensed a card each time from its stack of pre-printed stock readings (Nickell 2016). Why, for all its analytical claims, it really only did what “Princess Doraldina” was doing a century ago.

References

Explore. . . . 2018. Online at http://www.pinterest.com/pin/24910604162240251; accessed April 12, 2018.

Nickell, Joe. 2015. In the Stars? Personal Investigations of Astrology. Online at https://www.csicop.org/sb/show/in_the_stars_personal_investigations_of_astrology; accessed April 12, 2018.