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Saves the Banks Made For Saving the Pennies

By Susan B. Nevin, PITTSBURG POST-GAZETTE: Thursday, August 14, 1947

THRIFT HAS BEEN HELD a virtue almost from the beginning of time, and saving pennies has been encouraged in many ways. Mrs. Mary Hunter Gerken of Allison Park, however, saves the banks made for saving the pennies.

Mary Hunter Gerkin, photo

Save A Penny —
Ann Copeland plays with the mechanical banks collected by her aunt, Mrs. Mary Hunter Gerken of Allison Park. Here she is watching the dentist who will pull his patient’s tooth when a penny is inserted. Banks in the background include Jonah and the Whale, Atlas and the World, the Milking Cow, baseball and football players, the Girl with a Skipping Rope, the stock market Bull and Bear, the Speaking Dog, Uncle Sam, Paddy and his Pig, and Professor Pug Frog and Punch and Judy.

Having acquired one mechanical bank she wanted another, and from there the collection grew. Of the 275 known designs of mechanical banks, Mrs. Gerken has 130.

Bank collectors help each other, according to Mrs. Gerken, and are always willing to trade duplicates, or find missing parts. Collector John D. Meyer of Tyrone, who also writes about banks, has been particularly helpful to her.

Perhaps the oldest known bank is a mechanical alms box in the Metropolitan Museum, made in the Han Dynasty between 206 B.C. and 220 A.D. Through subsequent centuries in all countries, there were many kinds.

When the first large copper pennies were made in this country in 1793, youngsters were encouraged to save them in home-made banks or gourds and shells or whittled from wood or clay. About 1840 the mechanical banks began to appear though the first patent was not taken out until 1869. In these banks the insertion of a penny or pressing of a lever causes figures to move and perform feats in order to lure a child to deposit his savings.

Bankers Collect
Oddly enough most bank collectors are men, many of them bankers. But Mrs. Gerken comes of a collecting family. Her mother, Mrs. Percy Hunter collects pitchers and has such unusual ones as that of blown candy-glass from Italy and one commemorating Lafayette’s visit to this country. Miss Margaret Hunter, Mrs. Gerken’s sister, collects boxes — for snuff, perfume, beauty patches or pins — and also has some very beautiful Meissen and Dresden figurines.

Mrs. Gerken’s mother had a Tammany or Boss Tweed mechanical bank when she was a little girl. When the penny is inserted Boss Tweed puts it in his pocket and bows. But Mrs. Hunter’s bank disappeared long since, and the first one Mrs. Gerken found was a Boy in the Cabin Door. With her second acquisition, a drab looking Santa Claus, Mrs. Gerken made a great mistake. She painted Santa a handsome new red coat, thus destroying the value of the bank for a collector. Now she knows that old banks are simply waxed, but may be repaired if necessary.

Designs Humorous
Designs are frequently humorous and many tell stories. After the Civil War there were many on military subjects, designed for boys. There were a number of Uncle Toms, and the Freedman, one of the rare ones today, deposits the penny in his bank and thumbs his nose.

There are several versions of Jonah and the Whale. In Mrs. Gerken’s example, a woman in a skiff pushes Jonah into the gaping jaws of the whale when a penny is inserted. A penny slipped into the pocket of a dentist causes him to pull a tooth from the agitated patient. A baseball pitcher throws the penny, the batter misses and the catcher deposits the coin. Punch and Judy perform, and Atlas revolves the world on his shoulders.

William Tell accurately shoots the apple from the boy’s head in one bank and in the Milking Cow, the cow becomes fractious and kicks over the boy who is milking her. A mule kicks over his driver in another, and a lion chases hunters up a tree in still another.

Mrs. Gerkin keeps a jar of pennies nearby so that young nieces and other visitors may operate the banks. But she has "saved" no fortune in this way, for she empties the banks occasionally and refills the jar.


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