STEP SIX: Sound the Alarm! Incredible day on the Million Dollar Steps!

$111.23 turned into $841.14

January, 2012

I've gotten hooked on money making reality shows. I've watched every episode of American Pickers and Storage Wars on Netflix. And yesterday I had my own episode. It's been a month since my last purchase and I've been wanting to get back into the game so I started scanning listings on my local Craigslist. Casually attached to the bottom of an ad for some photographs of deer glued to disks of wood I found this cast iron box also for sale. It was once used to call the fire department from the street back in the 1930's. It sounded old and I went for it. What happened next was the biggest surprise I've ever had in the universe of buying and selling.

Step Six: Bought for $40, sold for $769.91
Project Profit: $841.14

Many hours of research after getting home I learned that this unit isn't as desirable as others due to its newer parts, but it also has some uniqueness to it that may bring a profit. First off, the box is made by Gamewell, the leader in the industry of Fire Alarm Call Boxes. They first showed up in the late 1800's but were very common by 1930. Early models had telegraph mechanisms inside which could relay a message to the dispatcher telling them where the alarm was pulled. A red light on top indicated the box for oncoming fire trucks. My unit was one of those that was upgraded in the 1960's. Norelco, yes the shaving people, also makes circuit boards and they manufacture fire and police call button panels and boxes now too. This old Gamewell box from 1930 was retrofitted to accept a new front panel by Norelco with both fire and police buttons, a speakerphone and a large circuit board on the inside.

The one part of the unit that I couldn't identify for sure was a large cylinder on top of the call box. It has a sliding key cover disk that keeps dirt and rain out of the keyhole. The cylinder is bolted to the top of the call box and looks like it always has been. Connected to the cylinder is a long flexible metal hose, going down into the call box, and ending with a silver dollar sized silver metal disk with a lever coming out of the side of it. I thought this was what's called a citizen's key. Early on, fire departments didn't want people to be pushing panic buttons all of the time so they only issued special fire keys to reputable citizens and if they used it to report a fire, their key would get locked inside the mechanism. Only a fire department official could open the box and release the key for the citizen. That cut down on false alarms and let them identify who raised the signal. I decided that if it wasn't that, then it might be what's called a Wagon Call Box, where a police officer could use their key in the slot to send an automatic telegraph message to the station that they had caught someone and needed a vehicle sent to take the person back to the station. My gut told me it's a citizen key box, but I didn't know yet.

I've listed it on Ebay for a 10 day auction. We'll see what happens!

After starting the auction on Ebay, I had three bids within the first ten minutes of a 9 day auction. I took that to be a good sign that this thing may be worth some money. Then, after an hour at auction, I received an email from an antique collector offering to buy the unit for $125 if I ended the auction right then. I didn't feel that would have been fair to the other bidders and politely declined the offer.

A few days later, I received some valuable information from another collector. I was wrong in both of my theories about the box on top. It is not a wagon call box or a citizen's key. It is something even better!

One tactic Gamewell used to deter false alarms, was to install a very loud siren on the top of the boxes. This non-electric device was cranked up by the fire department and waited until the lever was pulled. When that happened, the siren sounded loudly, calling attention not only to the box and place of emergency, but also likely to the person running away if they had just pulled it without just cause.

These loud devices weren't very popular or required lots of maintenance because Gamewell discontinued their use after only a few years. What this means is that my box is even more rare for having this attachment.

I found one discussion thread for fire equipment buffs who were discussing this siren, called the "Arrest-O-Larm" and they commented that they only knew of two places where there was still a Gamewell fire box in service with a retrofitted Norelco hardware and an Arrest-0-Larm on top in all of New York City. That's pretty cool, if true.

There are now 32 people following this auction, 337 unique page views, and 8 bids, topping out currently at $163.50.  There are only 15 hours left on the auction. I think the final price will spike just before the auction time runs out.  It's pretty exciting.  After auction closes, I'll post the purchase price I paid for this.

Final Update to step 4:
The auction held at $163 all the way up until 12 seconds to go. Then, in a flurry, the bids shot up to $769. 91  !!!  It far exceeded my predictions or those of anyone else I talked to about this. It's awesome! (I paid $40 for this unit).
Update 1/22/2012: I guess I'm not the only one out there trying to make money. I got my invoice from Ebay recently detailing my seller's fees. There's not much to hosting a digital page of text online for a few days, so I was pretty surprised to see that after the auction, I owed Ebay $80 for their service during this one auction.  Looking closer at the contract terms they provide, I see that if I can increase the number of auctions I host, they may offer me a business rate of 2-3% instead of the 10% that I get now. So the box actually sold for $778 but I deducted the seller's fees from the net profit to keep everything accurate. Oh well, I guess I can't argue that I would have reached the same target audience without Ebay's help. Since I only bought the box for $40 but I had $100 profit before this step, I added the difference to the new total.

UPDATE 1/28/2012: And how do the buyers of some of these items feel about their purchase from me? Here's one comment I got from the buyer of this call box:

"Box arrived today safe and sound so far. This by FAR is the COOLEST item i've EVER bought in all my years on ebay!!! Pic's didn't even come close to doing it justice!!! Amazing piece!!! Thanks very much again for everything!!! You're were great to deal with!! Extremely pleased from start to finish!!"

I'd say that speaks for itself! Onto the next step.

Step Six: Bought for $40, sold for $769.91
Project Profit: $841.14


  1. What happened if there was a fire, but only disreputable, non-keyholding citizens knew about it?

  2. A valid question, but a reality that probably happened more often than we'd like to know!

  3. Wow! That's an impressive price. Congratulations!

  4. Fascinating saga. Can't wait for the next chapter!