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NEW YORK SUN, August 31, 1931

PENNY BANKS
SHOW MAKERS' ODD FANCIES

Collector Tells of Rarities
in Many Materials and Forms.

By ARTHUR E. CORBY

Penny bank collectors are apt to give first consideration to their mechanical banks which as a general rule are of iron tin or other metal construction. But from the point of view of craftsmanship, historical significance and rarity the most interesting are, with few exceptions, in the non-mechanical class.

Although every collection of any importance contains exemplars of both categories, the greatest range of material (porcelain, pottery, glass, wood, leather and many other substances in addition to metals) available to designers of the simple types of penny-in-the-slot bank affords at the same time increased opportunity for a display of originality and artistry. It is among these non-mechanical banks that one hopes to discover that most precious of collector items, a unique piece.

Such rarities, known as "off-hand" pieces, were generally made by an artisan in his spare time for a member of his family. In type they range from the so-called "dumb" banks of crude design and slovenly workmanship to veritable masterpieces of craftsmanship in clay, metal, glass and marquetry. The designer might take for his model a grotesque figure, an article of domestic furniture, a fine lady clad in the pink of fashion, or some beast, bird or reptile possessing, it may be, a personal significance for the designer or the recipient. Perhaps the most delicate, elaborately wrought and valuable of these off-hand pieces are of blown glass, of which the finest were made in the old glass works at Sandwich on Cape Cod.

Rare Glass Banks
My most treasured specimen in this category is a bank eighteen inches tall which I regard as the ne plus ultra of its kind. Another equally cherished bank is a blown glass beauty decorated with milk-colored concentric stripes or striations against a clear crystal background. Two gold pieces of the long unminted one dollar denomination are blown into the glass at top and bottom. No doubt a thriftier workman designed the bank of similar form which has a half-dime embedded in the top section and a dime in the base. Other blown glass specimens were made at the New England Glass Works and in the South Jersey factories.

Some ambitious resident of Kingston, N. Y., or its vicinity, must have spent laborious hours constructing the little wooden keg bank in my collection: by actual count it accommodates 4,152 pennies, and thus laden it weighs 31-1/2 pounds. A collector of Indian relics in California had the macabre idea of converting a skull unearthed from an aboriginal burial  mound into a penny bank, and then filling it with 700 Indian pennies. Fitting companion piece to the skull is the wooden bank constructed in the form of a coffin of a style popular during the post Civil War era. Rarely do visitors care to handle these items, and their quality seems destined to continue long unchallenged.

Propaganda in Banks
Of considerable interest is the group of banks with labels intended for amusement or moral instruction. The spirit of thrift and economy which today seems sadly outmoded infuses a good many of the latter. Characteristics among titles in lighter vein are: "Give Billy a Penny," "My Expenses to Chicago-World's Fair 1893," "Be Wise," "Dollies Bank<" "Penny Trust Co.," "The Pig That's to Pay the Rent." We are reminded of political campaign propaganda and projects for Government financing current in another epoch by the figure of a frog with Gen. Ben Butler's head; one hand grasps a roll of greenbacks described by an arm band as "For the Masses," while the label on the other arm asserts "Bonds and Yachts for Me." It all goes to show that incitements to class antagonism are by no means a novel phenomenon in American political conflicts.

Pennsylvania, and especially the Pennsylvania-Dutch communities, provide many curious items. Typical is the crude figure of a woman modeled in the red clay of the Shenandoah Valley and inscribed with the delightful dialect statement: "Wen des peny you put is't saved I lacht—Gretchen, March 10, 1831." Gretchen tells us that when she saves a penny by dropping it in her bank, she sits back contently and smiles. Another Shenandoah pottery piece in the form of a tree stump with a squirrel clinging to it is inscribed: "Store doin(?) Noss(?) wie(?) de(?) squall(?)," an obvious illusion to the saving habits of the squirrel tribe which should be a lesson for young people.

Maxims Urge Thrift
The moral maxims of Poor Richard and other familiar adages of a thrift-inculcating kind find frequent application. "A Penny a Day keeps the Poor House away" is incised on a slip-ware pottery bank made by Haig in Philadelphia, and on a solid silver barrel about four inches high we read: "Money Barrel—The time to save is in the morning of life." Although I am no cross word puzzle addict, I sometimes ponder over the inscription on a pottery bank which I think would puzzle the experts. It reads: "Remember the tweens; do not pass them by unheeded, leave them not alone." A punster of the civil war era must have designed the little wooden bureau labeled "Freedmens Bureau," with the additional prestidigitator's catch-phrase: "Now you see it—Now you don't." The latter refers, of course, to the coin which, deposited in one of the drawers, has vanished when the drawer is again pulled out.

One of my largest banks, a massive wrought iron affair so heavy that one lifts it with difficulty, may have served as a public collection box. Apparently a fuse inserted through the coin slot exploded a charge which blew open the cover and bent the brass lock at right angles. A neighborhood locksmith whom I requested to repair the box and fit it with a new key at first declined, alleging that it was his duty to report the matter to the police. It required some persuasion to convince him that he was not dealing with a poor-box thief but with a collector of antiques.

Other Oddities
Occasionally one finds banks designed for double service. Typical of these is the pottery whistle bank and the candlestick bank. Then there is the bank that, in exchange for every coin deposited, rewards the depositor with a famous saying on a slip of paper. The smallest item in my collection is of green glazed pottery, in form resembling the onion dome of a Greek Orthodox church. It is just an inch and a quarter tall and an inch in diameter, and the slot is not quite large enough to admit a dime. Very possibly this oddity originated in some Near Eastern country of Byzantine tradition.

The most ancient bank in my collection is a Roman example of baked clay in the form of a leather chest with metal-bound edges. On the cover is incised the crude outline of a pig, gayly labeled "Felix." Occasionally the humor of off-hand pieces becomes rather broad, not to say Rabelaisian, but pornography in its calculated forms is noticeably absent. We may fairly assume that workmen who wished to teach the lesson of thrift to their loved ones were a pretty clean-minded lot.

(Web Note: Due to very poor ScreenScan of microfilm, the photos of three glass and one skull banks were not reproduced here. Text was also quite hard to transcribe.)

Photo Captions:

1)   Indian skull made into a bank.
2)   New England Glass Company blown glass bank of intricate workmanship.
3)   Blown glass bank made at Sandwich with gold dollars in base and top.
4)   South Jersey blown glass bank.


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