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By Anna Louise White

Have You a Penny Bank?

In an exhibit of Chinese works of art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City there was displayed an alms box made by a Chinese craftsman of the Han Dynasty (B.C. 206 to 220 A.D.), It is a rectangular pottery box with simulated lock and studding, the four corners supported by fat, squatting human figures. Inserted in the top is a movable piece weighted on the inside of the box. On it sits a bear with one paw raised over its head. When a coin of sufficient weight is dropped into a slot at the edge of the box, it strikes the weight and the bear bows his thanks. This alms box, made over two thousand years ago, is the ancestor of the coin banks which have now become collectors’ pieces.

Up to the 1840’s most of the children’s banks used in this country were imported from Europe and most juvenile banks made in the United States were of tin, not equal in workmanship to the iron and other metal banks which became popular in the later part of the nineteenth century.

In 1843, the firm of J. and E. Stevens Company was established at Cromwell, Conn. The small coin banks made by this company, together with those manufactured by the Sheppard Company of Buffalo, N.Y., are the prizes in coin banks now most sought by collectors. Old catalogues of these two companies are diligently scanned. Antique shops and dealers in Americana buy and sell the little banks, but many of the best purchases are made privately.

There are two classes of these old coin banks — non-mechanical, or "dumb," and mechanical. It is estimated that several hundred "dumb" banks are in existence, made in many designs — small safes, replicas of public buildings, bank buildings, houses and banks.

Animals seem to have been popular designs for these coin banks. Today everyone knows the "piggy bank." Pig banks are too numerous to be highly valued by collectors. The squirrel, as a hoarder, often appears. Little toy safes made of iron, some with real combination locks, served as coin banks.

Many of the "dumb" banks are specimens of fine workmanship and real beauty. Among these are the Pennsylvania pottery banks, some of them dating as far back as 1852. A very rare bank in handmade pottery is a little thatched-roof cottage. There are a few rare pewter banks. One of these is a replica of an old-fashioned chest of drawers, complete in every detail.

For beauty and fine workmanship, glass banks are in the same class as the pottery banks. Most of these were not made for general sale but were fashioned by glass blowers in their spare time, probably as presents for family or friends. With merely a slot for the insertion of a coin, the only way to take the money out was for the owner to break the glass when the bank was filled, unless one was patient and skillful enough to shake the coins out through the small slot. Consequently, only a few of these glass banks have escaped breakage.

According to good authorities, around 200 different types of mechanical banks were made. Old catalogues of the Stevens Company list 21 mechanical juvenile banks made by that company. A few mechanical banks are quite early in date, some as far back as 1862, but, roughly speaking, they were manufactured in quantities mostly between the years 1869 and 1906, when demand for them waned. The height of their popularity and use was in the 1880’s.

Many of the mechanical banks are patterned upon some well known story or historical event. William Tell hits the apple on the boy’s head with a coin shot from a gun; Uncle Sam drops into a carpet bag a coin which is placed in his hand, at the same time wagging his goatee. A small replica of Bunker Hill Monument has a winding sluice down its side. A coin is inserted at the top and slides down this chute to the coin receptacle at the bottom of the monument. Another bank, with the inscription "Money Moves the World," shows Atlas bearing the world, which spins when a coin is dropped into the bank. A bank, not particularly rare, is the "Tammany Bank," showing Boss Tweed, who pockets the coin placed in his hand.

A rare bank is the "Bull and Bear," a Wall Street oracle, it is claimed. The animals stand facing each other and between them is a small fan-shaped indicator with a slot at the top for the insertion of a coin. When the coin drops, the indicator swings toward either the bull or the bear, thus suggesting which way the market is going.

It is easy to understand the fascination of some of the mechanical devices might have induced children to put in coins to see the banks work. In the "Girl Jumping Rope" bank, a coin is inserted in a slot and when a lever is pressed the girl jumps rope, moving head and feet and causing the coin to fall into the bank. A clown drives a cart and horse around a ring in a bank called the "Circus" bank. An elaborate and rare bank is the "Merry-Go-Round," a large bank in which each animal serves as a receptacle for coins.

By the material of which they are made, or the costumes, or by some hint of an historical event, many banks indicate their periods. Definitely a period bank is a woman made of terra cotta. Her dress, in a straight basque skirt tightly drawn into a large bustle and furbelows in the back, marks the time as the 1870’s. Several banks are soldiers in uniforms of the Civil War. Some banks are suggestive of the Spanish-American War, and some are Chicago World’s Fair banks.

A few of the old penny banks are now being copied, and reproductions of the "Paddy and His Pig," "The Trick Dog," the "Monkey Bank, " an elephant throwing a coin into its back, and a few others are selling at low prices. Collectors are wary of these imitations.

Even in the actual "old" banks, there is often a similarity in design between two banks, but one may be vary rare and another not at all so. For instance, of many rabbit banks, omly one in particular is rare — a large rabbit on an oblong base, which moves its ears when the tail is pressed. There are two designs of prancing horses. One bank is rare; the other is not.

As in the case of coins and stamps, the value of the penny bank is based on the rarity or oddity of the article, or the desire of some collector to fill out his collection. If, in rummaging through old trunks or cleaning out an attic, you run across a little, apparently old, penny bank, try to find a date on it, or look on the base to see if there is the imprint of a large capitol "S," which might indicate that it was manufactured by the Stevens Company. If your find looks promising, clean it up, make sure that it works, then take it to an antique dealer or write to a magazine dealing in antiques to get it appraised. It may be worth more now than it sold for at the time of manufacture.


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