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Web Note: See below for text via OCR.
 


 

 

 

LIBERTY THE MAGAZINE OF A FREE PEOPLE — December 29, 1945
     By GEORGE HENHOEFFER

  
     On the mezzanine of the First National Bank in Fostoria, Ohio, depositors have been known to gather in one spot so thickly they present a minor traffic problem. The snag is a tiered glass-front cabinet arrayed with bright metal figurines which, like characters in a Disney production, persistently appear on the verge of coming to life. Remarkably, they do everything short of it —for the price of a small coin.
     These miniature animals, clowns, soldiers, and grinning darkies are the performing cast of a collection of rare old-time mechanical penny banks owned by the Institution's president, Andrew Emerine, who wryly observes that his miniatures are a bunch of restive scamps, restrained only by springs, coils, and clamps which give way when you drop a coin in the right slot.
     "Here, try it," he'll urge with a twinkle, and lift one of the banks—Professor Pugfrog's Great Bicycle Feat, for instance—out of the cabinet.
    
The Pugfrog bank measures 11 inches wide and 7-1/2 inches highabout the same size as its gaily-daubed companions. You place your coin on the rear step of a tiny two-wheel bike ridden by the fabulous amphibian and, after giving the pedal a turn, watch him do a complete flip, tossing the coin into an iron box straddled by a silly clown.
 
                            A new craze is sweeping
                           the collectors' circuit—the
                         
 toy banks of grandpa's day
                           that swap a laugh for a penny
                           and have been dusted off to
                           bring high prices

 
     All the banks sport names like something hot off the lips of a circus barker, and their antics nimbly take up the billing.
     The Darktown Battery introduces three colored boys in baseball formation. When you've put a coin in the pitcher's hand and cocked his arm, it sails a short distance through the air and jingles into a slot in front of the catcher, as the batter swings and misses. Freedman's Bank, one of the sassiest and probably the most valuable among mechanical varieties, has a check-suited tout who swipes your money off a gambling table with one hand and thumbs his nose with the other.
     Emerine could put on a continuous performance of 235 highly ingenious acts, since he has that many different mechanical banks. There's no such thing as a complete collection. In fact, because of darkly involved technicalities, the hobby's experts cannot even agree on the total number of different American-made banks possible to assemble. Emerine, a pioneer and therefore an experts' expert on the subject, puts it "in the neighborhood of 270."
     Mechanical banks were manufactured for retail trade and sold by the thousands between 1868 and the early 1900's, generally costing from fifty cents to two dollars. Nearly every thrifty grandparent can remember one beckoning for pennies from an appointed place on the mantel or sideboard, inert until fed a coin, then breezing into its winsome shenanigan.
     It became a worn but productive ruse in those days to ask a guest if he would like to see the bank perform. The guest, of course, furnished the coin.
    
Three or four hundred collectors now following the hobby guess that most of the once ordinary banks have gone to pieces and long since been discarded as rubbish. The few that may have escaped the junk heap are hunted eagerly in attics and old bureau drawers.
     VALUES of the banks have rocketed in the last ten years. Collectors say that Walter P. Chrysler, the late automobile manufacturer, gave the market its first vigorous nudge when he became interested, in 1935.
    
Collectors look upon any discussion of prices as an extremely touchy
subject. A Pugfrog Bank or a Clown, Harlequin and Columbine (drop in a coin and three figures do a dance) might be worth, say, $100 and up if in perfect all-around condition. Worn paint or rust spots might knock off twenty-five dollars; a slight crack or chipping, another twenty-five; a broken figure or vital part, still more. Common banks such as The Eagle (bird feeds eaglet coin box from beak) and The Tammany (fat politician pockets a coin with his hand) are worth perhaps ten dollars if perfect and not wanted at all when blemished.
     For value, Emerine will stack the Freedmans' Bank against all comers. Three whole specimens, and a fourth with several parts missing, are in collectors' hands. There's a rumor among the hobby's upper coterie that $750 once was offered for a "Freedman's," only to be rejected. Emerine, one of the three luckiest owners, values his at a hypothetical $300, but probably wouldn't sell at any price. He bought it from a Mexico City antique dealer for twenty-five dollars, duty included.
     Oblique glances are exchanged among the seers when somebody ventures to pick the rarest bank of all. Of several types, only one specimen is known. However, general opinion seems to hold that these are either test proofs of banks that never reached the market or hand-fashioned creations of some self-styled Cellini.
     Emerine owns one of this unique but fence-sitting group—The Whale Bank-on-Four Legs (whale's tail deposits coin as Jonah pops out of its snout).
    
"Don't confuse this with Jonah and the Whale," he cautions with a hint of the perfectionist.
     Some of the finest collections are owned by bankers like Emerine and on public display in banking institutions. About twenty years ago, Elmer Rand Jacobs, executive vice-president of the Seamen's Bank for Savings, took the wraps off his budding collection and placed it on view in the bank's Wall Street lobby. Today some half dozen banking institutions in various sections of the country have full- or part-time displays.
     Emerine happened across a couple of old banks, then heard about the Jacobs collection. They began to correspond, circulated a mass of "Banks Wanted" literature among antique dealers, and soon found the hobby had a few followers here and there. Competition was almost nonexistent in those days. New banks rolled in freely, and at low prices. By 1937, the year Jacobs died, collectors were cropping up everywhere and pickings had grown proportionately slim.
     Soon the WPA got wind of this new phase of Americana and turned it over to the Federal Art Project for a spot in the Index of American Design.
     The Boston Five Cents Savings Bank dusted off a collection assembled by its former president, Wilmot Evans, Jr., and gave it cabinet space. In New York, William F. Ferguson, treasurer of the Bank for Savings, was selected by eight other national top-ranking collectors to serve as a clearinghouse checker on 127 different rare to middling mechanical banks. The idea was to determine where the best—and also the most— banks might be.
     Dr. Arthur E. Corby of New York came out on top of the list with some 300 different mechanical banks—including a group of foreign makeand more than 4,000 "still," or non-action, banks.
     A Stamford, Connecticut, physician, Dr. Ralph W. Crane, keeps a collection of 150 banks in his reception room, encouraging patients to tinker with the less valuable specimens as a tension outlet. He even furnishes the pennies. Crane's office is notable for clusters of bright-eyed, instead of red-eyed, children. Crane began collecting twenty years ago, and was the first to advertise for banks in the hobby magazines. This brought a windfall of classy specimens before others got on to it and stirred up competition.
     PUBLIC showing of bank collections has led to varied and pleasantly unpredictable experiences. I. A. Long, vice-president of the Mercantile-Commerce Bank and Trust Company, St. Louis, uses his as a feature attraction for bond-buying campaigns. The second day of the Sixth War Loan drive, when both banks and bonds were getting a lively reception, a neatly wrapped box arrived at his desk. It contained a fine Cupola Bank (press a button, out jumps a man to receive the coin) and a card inscribed: "Add this bank, which I owned as a child, to your collection." Long hadn't seen the donor.
     In Houston, Texas, the Gibraltar Savings & Building Association reveres its bank collections as an institutional treasure. One hundred and twenty-five banks are exhibited in seven display cases.
     Walter Godlove, the association's assistant secretary and spare-time bank curator, has had four of the cases put on rollers. The association plans to trundle them out to schools, civic clubs, and local expositions now that the war is over. Emerine's collection became widely known in the towns and hamlets of Ohio through such strolling exhibits.
     The hobby isn't all play. The important collectors bear down with scientific fervor in the search and study of government patent records, early novelty manufacturers' catalogues, and other background data. Emerine has gathered copies of patent on fifty or more banks. He owns a half dozen illustrated price lists of old wholesale firms which originally marketed the banks as low as three dollars a dozen, done up smartly in individual wooden boxes. John D. Meyer, vice-president of the First Blair County National Bank of Tyrone, Pennsylvania, is busy gathering material for a handbook which will consolidate much of this sort of information.
     High adventure in a collector's life comes with the finding of some long wanted bank. Many years ago Emerine had his sights set for a Circus Bank (clown and cart ride the ring, knocking coin into the box). He had almost given up hope when one day his wife suddenly remembered a mechanical toy she and her brother had played with in Clyde, Ohio. It was the Circus Bank. Emerine has since located four more and traded off three to other collectors.
     Crane once found a rare Goat Bank (billy butts the coin into a tree stump) in an antique shop while motoring through New England.
     WITH the war over, bank hunters will take to the road again, but Emerine estimates that 95 per cent of all available banks already are in possession of collectors. This figure considers only perfect specimens. There might be quite a few around that would qualify for cabinet space after a little repair work. A few collectors do their own repairing, chiefly in basement shops equipped with small lathes and miniature iron foundries. Using a sound partoften on temporary loan from some friend-collector—talented hands can produce a duplicate, relieve the crippled bank of its imperfection, and give it a new lease on life.
     A. W. Pendergast, a retired optometrist of Terre Haute, Indiana, who first began mending specimens for himself and his friends, has built up quite a business and has restored 2,000 broken banks so far mostly for other collectors and at prices which hint only faintly of commercialism.
     Some banks that come to Pendergast are in a general state of chaos. He once charged twenty dollarshis highest price on record—to restore one of these.
     "It was sure sad," he remembers. "Everything was wrong with it."
     But sad banks, happy banks, healthy banks and ill, all have their places in the heart of a collector hankering to add a new act to his miniature penny-cadging hippodrome. And rare banks, like gold, are where you find them.
                                                 THE END

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