On a recent Sunday afternoon in my neighborhood in Queens, I stopped to watch a mother, father, and their young child. The parents, in church suits with the mildly stoned look of the truly exhausted, leaned against each other. But their kid? Their kid was euphoric—rapturous, even—because she was riding a coin-operated pink dinosaur that slowly rocked back and forth while playing a chiptune version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
The sight was arresting more for its rarity than for its Norman Rockwell atmosphere. I’ve walked by that pink dinosaur countless times—it’s outside a bodega near my bank and grocery store—but I’d never, before then, actually seen anyone using it. But once you begin noticing them, you see them everywhere, sprinkled throughout New York, usually near a gumball machine or in a movie theater lobby.
Commonly known as the kiddie ride, these coin-operated children’s amusements are over 80 years old. According to The Southwest Missourian, in 1931, Missouri inventor James Otto Hahs decided to make his children a special Christmas present, building a mechanical horse covered in mohair and using a real cow’s tail from the slaughterhouse for the horse’s tail. Realizing he had a potential hit on his hands, he set out to build a commercial coin-operated version. Early wood-carved prototypes were too heavy and too expensive, so Hahs developed his own method of casting large aluminum-framed horses. By 1932, the Hahs Gaited Mechanical Horse was winning design and invention awards. He later teamed up with the Exhibit Supply Company to distribute his horse widely, getting 5 percent of all profits. (Hahs would retire not rich, but well-off enough to tinker in his backyard for the rest of his life on more children’s toys and rides.)