AMERICAN COLLECTOR, May 31, 1934
Toy Banks Lured Children to Ways of Thrift
By Thomas Hamilton Ormsbee
COLLECTING penny banks, by the attraction of opposites, has come into vogue since the Depression. Before 1928 only a few people, mostly bankers, gathered these toys designed originally to inculcate a spirit of thrift in the young. Now there is a sizeable group of bank collectors, some with collections numbering several hundred items. No section of the country has a monopoly nor is the banking profession preeminent in this field of collecting. Doctors and dentists are distinctly prominent in the ranks of these specialists.
Toy banks were of all sorts and kinds. They were made of glass, pottery, wood, tin, japanned in bright colors, a particular variety of plaster of paris known as Pennsylvania chalk, and iron. The later although made last were most dramatic. They were of two types, the stationary that merely reverberated the tinkle of the copper as it dropped through the slot, and the mechanical which staged a puppet show every time its small owner parted with a penny. These varied in action from a simple nod of the head to an elaborate football scene in which two members of the opposing team tackled the man with the ball with astonishing speed and finality.
As for the beginnings of penny banks in America, nobody knows just when they were first made. Diligent search of children’s books of the early 19th Century discloses no reference by word or picture to them. The United States Census of 1850, however, enumerates 47 toymen and Webster’s dictionary of 1847 gives the definition of a toyman as "one who vends or makes toys." One may safely infer that banks were included in the toys vended or made and that most of these collectibles date from the middle of the century.
The first in banks were small box-like affairs held together with solder. In both shaping and ornamentation effort was made to have them resemble some public building such as a church, bank building or the like. Usually at the coin slot appeared either the word Bank in bold letters or some didactic motto such as Time Is Money.
Architecturally these miniatures were of the 1840 Gothic Revival school, which gives them the logical date of a few years later, probably about 1850. Whether they were first imported from England or elsewhere and later made in this country cannot be stated with any degree of certainty. However, nearly all commercially produced toys were first imported and then copied here, so it is probable that the same thing took place with these banks.
But not all of the early examples were house shaped. Some were produced as advertising novelties very early. A small bank shaped to represent a shelf clock with Gothic arched top is in the Elmer Rand Jacobs Collection in the executive offices of the Seaman’s Bank for Savings, New York City. On the face, done in black and white, is lettered The Dunstable Mass Clock Co. Dunstable. The rest of the finish is grained to resemble rosewood and the coin slot is in the back.
As time went on the makers of these tin toys tended to forsake architectural lines and produced banks of many other shapes. One popular at the close of the Civil War was a red drum. Here the coin slot in the upper head was ornamented with the injunction Save the Union. Still later, novelties in tin somewhat resembling the products they advertised were made and, in fact, are even made today. The Sunday School mite box, those distributed by the Salvation Army and other charitable organizations, although made of cardboard, are direct descendants of these early tin banks.
Those of glass, pottery, Pennsylvania chalk or wood, probably date from a few years later than their tin forerunners, but originally they were not made commercially. A craftsman wanted a present for a son or daughter. Why go to a store and pay money when he could make a perfectly good repository for the large copper cents then in circulation? Thus, regardless of the material, such early banks were off-hand pieces. In design they followed the whim of the producer and today are found in a wide variety of shapes and styles.
With the glass banks the blower formed some hollow shape from the metal left in the pot after the day’s work, provided it with a coin slot and finished it with as much or as little ornamentation as he pleased. Some were little more than hollow balls about the size of a large orange and decorated possibly with applied rosettes and scrolls. Others more elaborate, were of the footed type basic to goblets and small lamps. Occasionally one was made with decoration that showed it to have been mold-blown. Both colored and clear glass was used, and workmanship varied from crude to extreme nicety.
About 1890 glass banks were made commercially and might be termed dual-purpose pieces, since their original function was to serve as a container of something else. One, a milk glass house, surmounted by a very ample chimney, contained prepared mustard. On the bottom a paper label advised the purchaser that after the contents had been consumed, the thin glass at the top of the chimney could be easily tapped out and an excellent bank for a child would result. Whether the instructions also suggested that the removable roof be made fast with cement is not clear. Possibly the mustard manufacturer left this detail to his public, trusting to their ingenuity in making his mustard jar into a real bank.
Another bank of this type was that of a Philadelphia candy manufacturer who sent his sweets forth in colored glass containers resembling the Liberty Bell. These were made with a tin screw-bottom and a coin slot that could easily be broken through when the time came to transform the candy holder.
Other banks in opaque milk-white or tinted glass were also made late in the Nineties to compete with the pottery ones that were sold by toy stores, low-priced crockery dealers’ shops, and general stores.
The early pottery banks like those of glass were off-hand pieces. They ranged from the simplest of shapes to the most elaborate. A small jug was made without the customary hole for the cork, but with coin slot cut in the side. Again, the bank might take the shape of a pint jar without removable lid. Some of the more elaborate ones simulated animals such as pigs, which were exceedingly popular, and there were dogs not unlike those made some years earlier by the Staffordshire potters.
Later came the commercial pieces when some of the potteries produced the so-called china banks, sold the country over for ten cents each or even less. A wide variety of shapes and designs were produced. Among them was one in book form that was an adaptation of the famous book bottle, and a late example depicted an early automobile.
Among the wooden banks one can find practically anything from a simple box covered with wall paper and provided with the essential coin slot in the center of the top. To elaborate examples of the skill of some wood turner. One of the most popular designs of the latter seems to have been a bank, following the lines of an old fashioned straw beehive. Later when some of the pill box factories turned to making wooden banks commercially, they produced miniature barrels made in two parts and sealed by a band of gummed paper pasted around the middle. Others were in the form of houses and a few, probably of Swiss, German, or Japanese origin, were most elaborate of ornament and intricate of construction. Some even had a concealed spring which, when touched, would release the money container.
Then came the iron banks and from 1870 until the end of the first decade of the present century they were made in many designs and forms. As said earlier, these metal toys are of two varieties, the passive and the active. Of the latter there were again two sorts. Those operated by a lever that was pressed to deposit the coin and those run by a clockwork mechanism. The lever banks far outnumber those run by a winding key.
The haze surrounding the origin and date of toy banks abruptly clears away with these iron examples. Although not all of them bear the date when the design was patented, many are so marked and some have the name of the maker lettered on them. Most fortunate of all, two editions of the trade catalogues of the J. & E. Stevens Co., Cromwell, Conn., have been located by Norman H. Gehri of Morristown, N. J., who for several years has made a specialty of early banks of all types, particularly the iron ones.
These two booklets, one by inference of 1898, and the other dated 1906, tell very completely what banks this company was producing then. By comparing the illustrations with patent dates, much accurate information can be developed. In the two Stevens’ catalogues each bank is illustrated, the action taking place when the penny is deposited is described, and the retail price given.
In the 1906 edition one mechanical bank is shown that is not known as yet to have been found by any dealer or collector. It is the Shoot the Chute and its action is described as follows: "Raise the extension to position, press the hook down and lay a coin on the slot, place Buster Brown and his Boat at the top of the chute and start downward."
In addition to the J. & E. Stevens Co. other known American makers of iron banks were Enterprise Manufacturing Co., Philadelphia; the Kenton Hardware Manufacturing Co., Kenton, Ohio; a nameless maker located at Bethlehem, Pa., credited with originating the Jonah and the Whale; the company which marked its banks Excelsior Series; I. B. & Co.; an unknown maker generally held to have been located at Buffalo, N. Y., and the one which produced the H. & H. Registering Bank, which was patented June 12, 1888.
Study of patenting dates also discloses a wealth of specific information. The earliest would seem to be the Horse Race. It bears the date of August 14, 1871. Unfortunately no maker’s name is given and as it is not shown in the Stevens’ catalogues, no way is as yet available to trace further. In this bank four horses move around a circular track when a coin is deposited and the lever operated, in a manner reminiscent of roulette.
The next year the Novelty Bank was patented twice, on June 25 and again on October 28, but the maker’s name is not given. Here the door to the bank opens disclosing a man bearing a tray for the coin. Then on December 23, 1873, the Tammany Bank was patented. In this example Boss Tweed is appropriately seated in a chair — before he turned to politics Tweed was the head of a well-known New York chair shop — with right hand raised to receive a coin. The weight of the latter depresses it and the coin drops through a slot concealed behind his left forearm and Tweed nods his head gracefully. This is the earliest bank shown in the Stevens’ catalogue and is there labeled the Little Fat Man. The following year the Circular Bank in which a comic figure appears in the cupola when a coin is deposited, was patented but nothing is known of its maker.
In 1875, with the Philadelphia Centennial Expositition well under way, the Enterprise Manufacturing Co., of Philadelphia, brought out two stationary banks, one is a complete reproduction of Independence Hall and the other just the tower of the building. The former was patented September 4 and the latter, September 21. Probably the same year or earlier in the next year was the date of the Liberty Bell bank that rings when a coin is deposited. It has pictures in color of four of the chief buildings on its sides as well as a lengthy history of the bell pasted on the bottom but no maker’s name or exact date.
Also there was Creedmoor brought out in two variations in 1877 which took its name from the camp on Long Island where the New York National Guard regiments went for many years for their annual target practice. This bank portrayed a soldier shooting, the coin being the missile. The variation, dated June 26, had the soldier garbed in a 16th Century costume while on November 5 this was corrected with a design in which he was clothed in a blue tunic and red trousers that approximated the uniform worn at that time.
There appear to have been no other banks patented until 1880. The decade following would seem to have been most active for 18 were brought out that are clearly dated. Their names, dates and maker (when known) are as follows: Bulldog, April 27, 1880; Mule Entering Barn, August 3, 1880; Organ (small), May 31, 1881; Magician, January 16, 1882, Stevens; Uncle Tom, January 24, 1882; Jolly Nigger, March 14, 1882, Stevens; Organ (large). June 13, 1882; Dancing Bear, June 15, 1882; Initiating Bank First Degree, English patent, July 28, 1882 and U. S. patent, August 8, 1882; Paddy and His Pig, English patent, July 22, 1882 and U. S. patent, August 8, 1882; Eagle and Eaglets, January 23, 1883, Stevens; Trick Pony, June 2 and July 7, 1885; Speaking Dog, July 14, 1885, Stevens; Uncle Sam, January 6, 1886; Stump Speaker, June 6, 1886; Mason Bank, Excelsior Series, February 8, 1887; Darktown Battery, January 17, 1888; and H. and H. Registering Trunk, June 12, 1888.
During the next ten years only three banks are known to have patent registery dates. They are: Girl Skipping Rope, a clock movement, April 15, 1890, Stevens; Jonah and the Whale, July 15, 1890; and William Tell, June 23, 1896, Stevens.
In addition to the banks with dates, there are five which simply bear the wording "patent applied for." They are: Colored Mammy and Child; Santa Claus at Chimney; Foot Ball, Stevens; Teddy and the Bear, Stevens; and World’s Fair, a stationary bank. Then there are two which bear patent serial numbers instead of dates — the Owl, 222,628, Stevens; and Clown on Globe, 428,459.
There are also 71 banks that either never had a patent date or the specimens seen lack the original bottom plate where this wording was generally placed. These are: Bad Accident, Stevens — Darky at Cabin Door, Stevens — Grenadier — Goat Butting Gnome — Soldier Shooting Moving Target — Mule and Donkey — Man with Barrel — Always Did ’Spise a Mule — Ticket Taker, two variations — Lion and Monkeys, three variations — Lighthouse — Rabbit and Cabbage — Head with Blinking Eyes — Small Negro Head — Laughing Face — Head Wearing Cap — Two Bullfrogs — Hexagonal Fort — Boy Scouts in Camp — Chinaman with Rat on Tray — Owl with Book — Frog on Stump — Rooster — Squirrel with Nut — Bird on Church Roof — Kicking Mule, Stevens — Trapeze Performers — Bill E. Grin — Bulldog and Man — Jack the Giant Killer — Lion Hunter — Confectionery Store — Chimpanzee — Bear — Pig with Movable Tail — Beggar with Peg Leg — Children Roller Skating — Uncle Remus — Girl Holding Dog — Chinese Magician — Magic Bank — Leap Frog — Hall’s Lilliput Bank — Ping Pong — Chief Big Moon, Stevens — Indian Welcoming Columbus — Acrobat on Bars — Zoo — Afghanistan — Standing Rabbit — Elephant with Howdah — Elephant, two variations — White Face — Professor Pugfrog’s Great Bicycle Feat — Humpty Dumpty — Boy on Trapeze — Monkey with Walnut — Artillery, two variations — Hold the Fort — Punch and Judy — Pelican, two variations — Atlas Bank — Columbia Bank, Kenton — Educated Pig, Stevens — William Tell, Stevens — Speaking Dog, Stevens — Bear Hunt — Hen and Chickens, Stevens — Clown and Harlequin, Stevens — and Cat and Mouse, Stevens.
There is also one of some public building with a balcony connecting the two wings that bears the mark I. B. & Co., but no date. The Stevens Company, the Kenton Company and divers other makers of iron toys also produced a wide variety of banks which were miniatures of key and combination safes.