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AVOCATIONS — A Magazine of Hobbies and Leisure, March 1938

In Old Penny Banks...

by Norman Sherwood

THERE is a streak of fascinating whimsy running through the work of the Master Artisans who fashioned the old banks. It is like a vein of pure gold and it crops to the surface in the most unexpected places. In fact one of the places where this "whimsy" is most in evidence, is not in the strictest sense of the word in the manufacture, but rather in the finishing or painting—there is no doubt whatever in my mind that the craftsmen who decorated these Banks regarded themselves as veritable artists and left no stone unturned, no opportunity unfulfilled to exercise to the fullest extent their gifts of self expression in their chosen field of work.

Well I remember a certain Tammany Bank which I secured in the immediate neighborhood where all Tammany Banks were made, but this particular Tammany was indeed a shining example of the "whimsy" of Miss Kate Ralph painter extraordinary of Penny Banks for the Stevens Company of Cromwell, Connecticut. If I recall correctly it was a Bank which Miss Ralph had herself treasured as one of her masterpieces. The coat and vest of this particular figure of Tammany was edged and faced in color, he had a goatee which anyone knows has no place whatever on a well-behaved Tammany bank. His face, I blush to tell it, was heavily rouged, his vest was as Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors, an enormous gold watch chain dangled across his ample and well fed "tummy."

What of the Hall’s Excelsior Bank, that remarkable bank with the little Monkey Behind the Desk, who started his amazing career in 1869, the earliest patent marked cast-iron bank of which I am aware, and which was made year in and year out, literally by the thousands, right down to nearly the close of the mechanical bank era. The varieties in casting, different holes in the back, different size holes, differences in inside construction, etc. are many and amazing. It seems as though these patterns must have been altered and improved (?) again and again, or perhaps because of popularity many different variations of pattern were used in the casting. But this is not "whimsy"! Well perhaps not, just an example of man’s inability to ever be satisfied even with a successful example of his own handiwork. But there is lots of whimsy in another story about Hall’s Excelsior which I am leading up to—ask the average collector whether Hall’s Excelsior was ever made with a man instead of a monkey and he will answer "No," with a snort for emphasis. Perhaps I have lived too close or too long to this entire subject but my own private opinion backed by considerable study and the examination of many hundreds of the most interesting of all common banks, is that some were made with a higher (or longer) and entirely differently shaped body and I have had several specimens which when I secured them had this variant body and funny little man’s heads instead of monkeys. True they could easily have been changed or replaced recently or even long ago. "Whimsy" among childish owners with the jack-knife could easily explain that—and yet in nearly every case where there has been another than the conventional monkey’s head there has been the longer body and, unless the bank had been repainted, there is a striping to simulate brick work at the base of the bank.


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