Slot machines are a mainstream concern in the era of online gambling and large land-based casinos, so it is perfectly possible for players to spend hours with their favorite game without really thinking about the way it is presented.

Behind the bright lights and spinning reels lies an intriguing tale relating to the emergence and evolution of the symbols used to provide matching combinations and big wins for lucky slot fans. So read on to find out about how slot symbols have changed over the decades, and what underlying meanings are hidden in plain sight.

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Symbols born from necessity

When the first slot machines were invented and introduced in the US in the late 19th century, it was obviously necessary to design symbols to go on the spinning reels and act as an easy indicator to tell the player when they had struck it lucky and when they had missed out.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, rather than coming up with something completely original, the designers at Sittman and Pitt of New York instead chose to use card faces from poker. This simple yet effective step proved to be an enduring one as well, as playing card icons are still among the most popular slot symbols to this day.

Meanwhile on the other side of the country in San Francisco, inventor Charles Fey created his own symbols for his simpler yet more effective slot machine design, and he thought a little more carefully about what might appeal to players, rather than just cramming in some playing card iconography and calling it a day. The result was the Liberty Bell machine, which included the titular bell as one of its symbols, and also lucky horseshoes.

As these early machines caught on across North America, audiences everywhere became familiar with these symbols, and the bell is another of those that has managed to stick around into the 21st century and the digital era of gambling, even if lucky horseshoes have somewhat fallen by the wayside in comparison.

Symbols inspired by prizes

As the 20th century got underway and copycats of the original Liberty Bell slot machine emerged, other manufacturers sought to differentiate themselves from the pack by mixing things up with new symbols.

In some cases, slot games featured specifically themed symbols, often relating to a general feeling of patriotism which was bonding the US together tighter than ever before, with flags becoming a common sight.

In others, a more practical approach was taken, with symbols not just being arbitrary, but actually having a link to the prizes available. This brought about the trend for fruit-based slot symbols, because some machines would not pay out in cash, but instead offer the winner some chewing gum instead. Fruit-flavored gum was linked to the corresponding fruity symbols, so a brace of oranges would net some orange-flavored gum, and so on.

Modern players will not think twice about seeing fruit symbols still used on slot games; in fact in the UK they are called fruit machines rather than slots for this very reason, even if it has been over a half a century since gum was regularly offered as a prize.

Symbols unleashed by the video slot era

While slot machine symbols continued to change and follow different trends as the 20th century progressed, it was not until the first video slots started to appear in the 1970s that designers were gradually unshackled from the limitations of fixed reel mechanical machines of the past and could let their imaginations soar.

The electrification and eventual digitization of slots meant that a whole world of themes could be embraced, leaving room for far more experimentation with symbols than was ever possible in the past.

Then as the online casino market got going in the 1990s, it became apparent that the sky was really the limit in terms of slot themes and symbol designs, with modern casino sites offering full-blown animated slots, 3D graphics and an array of incredible visual effects to go along with them.

Perhaps most interesting of all is the fact that you can certainly see the influence of those classic slot symbols, scattered in amongst the flashier 21st century counterparts.

It is almost a case of slot fans subliminally expecting to see playing card suits, fruits and bells on the reels, even if the rest of the game is themed around something entirely disconnected from these icons. And because these symbols have effectively become enshrined in the lore and history of slot machines, they will probably remain in this privileged position for years to come.

About the Author

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Mirko Humbert

Mirko Humbert is the editor-in-chief and main author of Designer Daily and Typography Daily. He is also a graphic designer and the founder of WP Expert.