City Cast

WTF are Pull-Tabs?

Adrian González
Adrian González
Posted on September 18
Wisconsin pull-tab cards at the Main Depot bar in Madison.

Wisconsin pull-tab cards at the Main Depot bar in Madison. (Dylan Brogan / City Cast Madison)

Nothing pairs better with a beer at a Madison bar than pull-tabs, the small cardboard game pieces ubiquitous across the state. We asked freelance author and journalist Tea Krulos to help us uncover the bizarre backstory of this unofficial — yet legal — lottery.

Satisfying Unzipping

Feed a dollar into a machine and out comes a Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcap — that’s the full government name. Pull on the tabs to reveal a collection of slot-machine-like icons that could win you up to $250. Krulos says the most he’s won is $2.

The Origin Story

“The story is really convoluted and strange, and kind of a rabbit hole,” says Krulos, who recently wrote about pull-tabs for Milwaukee Magazine and says he’s still unsure if he fully understands it.

The game was invented in 1955 by Walter Bohrer, who was in the business of providing bars with coin-operated machines like jukeboxes and pinball — it was his “retirement hobby business.”

A machine named "The Master" that contains Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcaps.

Behold the machine that contains these "souvenirs." (Dylan Brogan / City Cast Madison)

A Nostalgic Loophole

The sale of gambling devices is illegal in Wisconsin, so how are pull-tabs allowed? According to state statute 100.16, a gambling piece is legal if it is attached to an item of value in addition to a potential prize — like the fries you got with McDonald’s Monopoly game. Walter Bohrer remembered that when he was a child, delivered milk bottles had a tab underneath the cap that you could pull and potentially win a free dairy product. This gave him an idea.

Fellow 90s kids will remember Pogs, decorated circular cardboard pieces that you could collect  — and collect, I did. Enter the Wisconsin Souvenir Milkcap, a collectible item that just so happens to come with the opportunity to win some money.

This might be my favorite instance of utilizing nostalgia to exploit a loophole.

I find it to be clever. He saw the law, he studied it, and it was a way that he could work his way through it.Tea Krulos, Freelance Writer and Journalist

You can click (not pull) the button below to hear more about pull-tabs.

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