THE PRIMER OF American Antiques
Cast-Iron Mechanical banks
PRODUCTION of these began, in a very small way, in 1870. More were made by 1880. By 1890 almost all the small-iron foundries—the foundries casting small things—were either making mechanical toy banks or making parts for some other maker. They’re not antique in any sense of the word. Properly, they are toys of the mid-Victorian eras. But they now engage the interest of an enthusiastic crew of collectors which includes bank and corporation presidents, bigwigs, stage and screen stars, and just people.
If you are prone to laugh, or even sneer, go out and buy a Punch-and-Judy bank. Or try to buy a Harlequin-and-Columbine bank, made as late as 1910. You’ll be amazed, not only at the price, but at what happens to you when you start to play with the banks. That’s how the collecting vogue started. Only it isn’t a vogue. It is an exclusive avocation. Seasoned bank collectors run regular campaigns of "want ads" in an attempt to collect every bank ever made. Their correspondence is said to keep several highly paid secretaries busy after hours.
It is a great pity that at this point in time the really definitive book on these banks cannot be listed. It is scheduled for publication in 1945 or 1946. Louis Hertz is doing it, and he begins by saying, "No bibliography is given in this work for the simple reason that no literature as yet exists on the subject." Mr. Hertz has corresponded with every one-time maker of these mechanical banks, whether or not the makers are still in business. He has visited many foundries and done research on the spot, delving in company files and pattern piles. He has listed every bank ever patented and every bank ever made. He has the maker’s original pictures of every bank. So you have at least one book to wait for that will be definitive in respect of one subject—Mechanical Toy Banks of Cast Iron.
It is not hard to understand why these banks appealed to youngsters. Each one gave a little show for the penny deposited in it. This proved to be far more effective than moral maxims or stern admonitions. They moved. They did things. And they could be opened with a screw driver in emergency.
With all of these plus factors, it is no wonder so many of them were made, and in so great a variety. Some of these banks are quite decorative as table pieces, notably the Eagle bank (eagle feeding a nest of young with the penny), which is well-articulated and beautifully cast. Even the tiny eaglets raise their heads and open their mouths as the mother bird bends forward, raising her wings. Within the bank there is a little bellows which also "peeps" when the bank goes into action. The Uncle-Sam bank is quite appropriate. So is the one called Atlas, which shows the ancient giant supporting the earth. The trolley-car and sewing-machine banks, of course, reflect a popular interest in inventions; so also the "camera" bank which, it is said, was withdrawn from circulation because several camera companies objected to it. The Independence-Hall bank obliges with a peal from the Liberty Bell when a penny is dropped in it. Scores of comic banks—from the whale swallowing Jonah to a darkey doing a somersault in a cabin doorway in order to kick the penny into the bank, are known.
Thee toys were sold at from seventy-five cents to $1.50 each. Some have as many as fifteen to twenty separate bits of casting, all of which had to be assembled, articulated, and fitted with various levers and springs, then painted, and boxed. Mrs Ina Hayward Bellows in 1940 wrote a monograph on these banks and what she had learned about them in her experience as a collector and dealer. Mrs. Bellows classes Harlequin and Columbine, Man-in-the-Chair, Circus Rider, Snake-and-Frog, 49-er (Gold Digger’s Mule), Freedman’s Bank (darky at a table), Woodpecker, Milking Cow, Little Red Riding Hood, John Bull, and Merry-go-Round (carousel) banks as valued at from $40 to $75 each. Values quoted in any book on antiques or near antiques are a hazardous addition. Information as to prices and values is and can only be current as of the moment they are put down. They may change tomorrow. And almost always they do change, up or down, as the case may be. If the top hundred bank collectors quit collecting tomorrow and put their collections up at auction next month, their action would do two things: (1) set new price levels, and (2) upset the market for some time.
Inflation is easy in antiques because there are just so many. When these little banks were being bought by dealers at fifty cents and sold for a dollar or two, the surface supply was quickly skimmed off. Then the prices went up. The minute they did, and the news got around that the banks were bringing five and even ten dollars, innumerable attics were searched for cast-iron banks. A new supply reached the market. New examples came to light. The boom was on.
What are these banks worth today? Two prices: what you can get for one from a reputable dealer or collector, and what you must pay for one if you go to buy it. Conceivably that price may be the same, but it seldom is. A collector may well pay you what you’d have to pay, if he wants your bank. But a dealer? No. He is in business. He will pay the equivalent of the wholesale price and rightfully expect a hundred per cent mark up. Until the definitive book on these banks is published, and it will not quote prices or values, you will do well to study the book listed below. Mrs Bellows deserves more than a round of applause for tackling this subject in 1940 and in making a little book that tells a good story in words and pictures.
Old Mechanical Banks, by Ina Hayward Bellows.