According to the best information of collectors and dealers, mechanical penny banks first appeared in America nurseries during the 1860s. Though the earliest known patent for one of these ingenious thrift persuaders was taken out in 1869, it is a fair presumption that some types were developed a few years earlier. Primacy for their invention and manufacture must be accorded to New England and, specifically, Connecticut.
Mechanical toys have a much earlier origin. Indeed, they were familiar to the children of classic Athens. Considering the venerable tradition of playthings embodying a principle of mechanical action, one speculates why more than two thousand years should roll by before some unknown craftsman hit upon the simple notion that a child could be taught thrift while manipulating a mechanical toy. So natural, it seems to us, is the toy bank combination, so obvious its utility as a device for coaxing children into habits of thrift.
Most of the mechanical penny banks in American collections have no special period value. The Jolly Nigger banks for instance, might have been in vogue at any time during the last hundred years. Santa Claus, William Tell and the various animal banks the butting goats, leaping frogs, dogs, cats, mice, kicking mules are among those timeless subjects of folk lore and nature that appeal to the child mind of any epoch.
HISTORY IN BANKS
Many of the early banks featured military themes. Four years sanguinary civil strife had not lowered the prestige of the soldiery. An American father of the early 70s was apt to buy junior a toy bank representing a blue-coated Union artillery-man discharging a mortar at a Southern blockhouse. Or the weapon might be a field artillery piece and the target a fort. In both cases the ammunition is, of course, a coin. We can imagine a Virginia colonel presenting one of the Connecticut contraptions to his small grandson. "Yes, suh, that shows exactly how the Yanks beat us. Money did it. They had the hard cash, and we had only lion-hearted men!"
When the Philadelphia exhibition of 76 lifted the country on a wave of exultant self-satisfaction (we were celebrating a century of freedom) the patriotic mood found more peaceful expression at least in penny banks. One of the most popular types bought by visitors at the exhibition represented the tower of Independence Hall; another variety was a miniature facsimile of the Liberty Bell.
The "Tammany" bank, first listed in a catalogue of 1879, represents a corpulent black-moustached ward heeler seated in an armchair. Boss Tweed, most notorious of grafting politicians, died in Ludlow Street Jail in 1878, convicted with his satellites of gigantic swindling operations which cost the New York taxpayers millions of dollars. This bank is not a representation of Tweed, but quite possibly it resembles some contemporary politician who was a member of the Tweed ring. The weight of a coin placed in the bosss hand swings his arm across his chest; as the coin falls into a slot at the breast pocket he nods contentedly. Doubtless the designer regarded his creation with cynical amusement; but one cannot help wondering what effect it may have had on youthful minds. How many parents of today would give their young hopefuls a toy that symbolized the tribute of honest citizens to grafting politicians?
We are reminded by the "Breadwinners Bank" that labor unrest and class consciousness are no new thing in these United States. This bank evidently indicates the point of view of some American working men of the 80s and 90s, who blamed hard times on monopolistic trusts and financial buccaneers. A bare-footed man of strongly Semitic features holds a club labeled "Monopoly" across a blacksmiths anvil. The club extends beyond the anvil preventing an honest mechanic from access to a huge loaf labeled "Honest Labor Bread." The symbolic meaning is clear.
The bank is operated by inserting a penny in the cleft at the end of the club. When a lever is pressed the mechanic swings his sledge hammer at the club, which is deflected downward, causing the coin to slip into a slot in the loaf. The monopolist is thrown off his balance head over heels, kicking the financial magnate behind him. The financiers head only is visible, emerging from a money bag labeled "Boodle Steal Bribery." On the base of the group is the admonition "Send the Rascals Up."
FAIR OF 1893 AND COLUMBUS
Our little war with Stain in 98 revived the fashion of military type banks. One popular number represents an American cannon firing at a Spanish cruiser. Soldiers were again in high favor and they appear in many variations, one of the best known being the Creedmoor, named for the Long Island camp of the New York National Guard.
The Pan American Exposition of 1901 is remembered today chiefly because President McKinley was assassinated in its Temple of Music. In the months before the opening day the exposition the toy bank makers were busy preparing for a rush of orders. It must be confessed they showed very little imagination. Since the fair was held at Buffalo they turned out thousands of mechanical banks in the form of bisons.
When horse cars were replaced in American cities by the more efficient trolleys the novel type of transportation was advertised by trolley-car banks. President Theodore Roosevelts fame as a lion and bear hunter received appropriate recognition in toy banks which are variants of the Creedmoor and the still older William Tell types. Establishment of the Boy Scout movement, Pearys discovery of the North Pole, the bicycle and roller skating fads are commemorated in the toy banks of the last thirty years.