NEW YORK SUN, August 31, 1931
PENNY BANKSCollector Tells of
SHOW MAKERS' ODD FANCIES
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
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
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(?)
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
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.
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
(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.)
skull made into a bank.
2) New England Glass Company blown glass bank of intricate
3) Blown glass bank made at Sandwich with gold dollars
in base and top.
4) South Jersey blown glass bank.