By GLORIA MERTENS
Don't save pennies if you want to
make a fortune — save penny banks.
That's Henry W. Miller's advice to this generation of youngsters.
Pennies might be a foolproof way of getting rich, but collecting and
reselling old penny banks is more interesting and lucrative, according
to Mr. Miller, who does just that.
Stepping into Mr. Miller's hobby room in the back of his 18 Elliott
Street home is like stepping into the childhood of your grandfather. The
small room is filled with tiny iron people and animals mounted on banks,
depicting scenes of the 1880s and 1890s.
With a proffered penny and the flip of a switch, the colorful figures on
each mechanical bank come to life. Uncle Tom rolls his eyes; a pitcher
hurls and catcher reaches forward; a quaint Santa with bell in hand
drops a coin into his snow-covered chimney.
(upper right) lowers his rifle as the bear before him opens his mouth
— and thus another penny shoots into the 75-year old penny bank held
by Henry W. Miller, Mrs. Miller carefully oils the mechanism of a Punch
and Judy bank while Punch brings his worn stick down on the head of
Judy, who dumps penny into backstage bank. The mechanical banks shown
here, most of them made in the 1880's, were once children's toys, but
today are collected and sold for as much as $25 to $300 apiece.
Other Ingenious Devices
A polished black pony prances with his head bobbing, or a
diminutive, still angry Punch brings his stick down on Judy's head as
her dustpan drops another coin into the backstage bank. An old organ
grinder produces music from his hurdy-gurdy for a penny, and a
red-capped monkey capers before a cat and dog. For a penny a large-sized
dog — seated before a tiny girl dressed in button shoes and
ankle-length, beribboned dress — wags his tail. In still another bank,
a coin makes a mule swing around and kick his keeper.
The intricate action in Mr. Miller's current collection is fascinating
to him after 18 years of collecting and selling the antique banks.
"Man is a grown-up boy and just as vulnerable to the ingeniousness
of mechanical action," Mr. Miller and his fellow collectors agree.
For these banks, which once sold for less than $1, hobbyists often pay
$25 to $300, depending upon the bank's condition, mechanical action and
His Favorite Bank
One of Mr. Miller's favorite chuckle-producing penny banks is called
"Bad Accident" and is worth close to $100. A penny is placed
in the lap of a man driving a mule-pulled cart. When a tiny lever is
pressed, a child jumps from behind a clump of bushes in front of the
mule; the mule rears up, upsetting the cart and sending the coin sliding
into the bank beneath the driver's seat.
Another one depicts a hod carrier and mason at work. The penny is
carried in the hod which moves to meet the trowel, dropping the coin
into a slot in the wall.
The start of this valuable collection was unplanned by Mr. Miller, who
is an agent for Soil Conservation Service, Department of Agriculture,
Mr. Miller and his wife were in an antique shop one day looking for old
furniture. He spied what appeared to be a child's toy but proved to be a
mechanical bank. A few moments of experimenting made him decide to be
its next owner.
Paid $10 For First Bank
But the business-wise Mr. Miller purchased it only after the shop
owner dropped the price to $10. Nineteen penny banks and several months
later, after Mrs. Miller had been urging him to "get rid of the
clutter," Mr. Miller reluctantly placed an ad in an antique
journal. The deluge of offers, all offering much more than the original
price of the collection, launched Mr. Miller on his first toy-collecting
career. Since then his wife, now an ardent fan has become the mechanic
for the collection. A single telephone sale has brought as much as
$1,500 for picked selection. Buyers may be bank officers who use the
expensive "toys" for displays and advertising models. The
collection brings inquiries from avid hobbyists from coast to coast and
makes him a welcome guest in the offices of such VIP's as the president
of Chicago's First Federal Savings and Loan Association bank.
Started Work at 12
Born into a hard-pressed family of seven, Mr. Miller claims it was
this which fired his ambition to become financially independent. He
began his climb toward a fortune at 12 years of age as an errand boy for
a hat store. Since then he has worked as a South American agent for the
Nemours Trading Corporation, an accountant for American firms in Cuba,
real estate agent, Tariff Commission employee, Soil Conservation area
manager, and as an executive in the administrative office of the State
Department's international broadcasting division.
Although he calls himself "a materialist," asserting
"I'll sell anything that has a value," Mr. Miller admits that
when he buys a bank from a non-collector for less than its real value,
he follows up the payment with a check labeled "coffee money."
He also admits that when a prospective seller asks "what's it
worth?", he hands over the trade's price booklet for the answer.
Although Mr. Miller will sell any of his collection to another hobbyist,
he will refuse to sell it if he knows it's for a child.
Passed Up Good Offer
One of the stories Mr. Miller likes to tell happened when he first
began collecting banks for profit. A friend in the antique business sent
him a package containing five mechanical banks, with a note asking if he
could sell them. The man added that the price was $7.50 for the five.
Mr. Miller looked them over and sent them back with a note politely
joshing the man's sanity. A few weeks later he received another note
gleefully telling him that one of the banks had been sold for $25, and
the remaining four had brought close to $50.
"But I had the last laugh in this case," Mr. Miller relates.
"Two years later I was looking over a recently published book on
antique banks and discovered one alone would have brought over $200.
Now retired, Mr. Miller devoted his time to collecting, but penny banks
aren't his only stock in trade. To them he has added old toy cap
pistols, and now he plans to begin a collection of antique paper