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CHICAGO TRIBUNE MAGAZINE, Pg. 56, December 11, 1955
  

When Thrift Was Both
a Virtue and Fun

 

The  Mechanical Penny Banks of the Eighties and Gay Nineties Gave Kids Action as They Saved. Today, the Banks Are Collectors' Items Worth Up to Many Hundreds of Dollars Apiece

          
                            
By Norman A. Hagman
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN was of an inventive turn of mind, but it is not recorded that he ever invented any type of machine which would have further popularized his favorite slogan, "A penny saved is a penny earned."


Marion Nelson, a Northwestern co-ed,
with penny bank collection formerly
owned by the late Walter Chrysler.

        This ancient homily, however, gathered force throughout the intervening years and, by the very late '70s, hundreds of ingenious tinkers, artisans, and inventors had fashioned many penny bank models to capitalize on a nation-wide trend toward thriftiness. Be it ever to their credit these crafty craftsmen traded on a simple psychological discovery; it was fun to save money if you could have action for your money without spending it.


"Jonah and the Whale" bank, a popular and amusing
penny saver; the penny was pitched to the whale.

        Young America responded with a notable enthusiasm and, presumably, worked on fond parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles with a vigor akin to that of today's moppets who have made box top gimmicks a multi-million dollar business. Besides, saving money was a commendable virtue, especially in a day and age when the dollar unlike today's watered-down version was worth exactly a hundred cents. Indeed, the dollar, and often a little more, was the going day's wage for the adult male.


The "Tammany" bank. The figure slips
the penny into his pocket and bows.

        Fertile imaginations, coupled with expanding manufacturing facilities, created penny banks in widely diversified shapes, sizes, and ideas. All embodied some type of mechanical action, either by gravity or by the release of a spring operated plunger. At any rate, the penny was deposited or catapulted into a concealed receptacle with a satisfying plunk. The "still " banks the ones with merely a slot to receive the coin expired quietly. Parents no long had to prate of the necessity of laying by for a rainy day. The better the penny bank action, the bigger the urge to save.


The bucking mule pitches the penny into
the bank. This was an old favorite.

        A few of these banks were pressed tin, but most were made of the readily available cast iron. Why wasn't aluminum used? Remember, at this time this metal was practically nonexistent. It was so scarce that it was used to cap the Washington monument as evidence of its rarity.
        Large foundries in the east cast, machined, and assembled the banks. Old catalogs going back to 1885 show that Chicago's mail order giants, Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, played no small part in their world-wide distribution. Marshall Field & Co., The Fair, Siegel Cooper, Spencer Brothers, John V. Farwell company, Thorsen & Cassady were among the many Chicago retail stores selling these phenomenally popular items.
    
Some models of the old-fashioned mechanical penny bank will command a price Which literally makes them worth more than their weight in gold! This may surprise many, but even penny banks are subject to the immutable law that supply and demand govern price. Here are some of the prices recently asked for certain models: Ferris Wheel, $450; Giant, $1,000; Cat Jumps for Mouse, $800; Horse Race, $300; Girl Skipping Rope, $650; Uncle Remus, $325; Bucking Ram, $450; Fortune Teller, $450; Bird on Roof, $225.
        There are dozens of other models which range from a few to thousands of dollars. In the fabulous class fall such items as Freedman's Bank, The Blacksmith, Clown and Harlequin, The Mikado, Girl in a Victorian Chair, Croquet Player, Bread Winners, etc. Find one of these and you might be able to buy a new car or take a big bite off the mortgage.
        Yesteryear's mechanical banks were as plentiful as grass, and now, it seems, they are rarities. Cast iron is admittedly not the most durable of metals, and breakage by dropping or by vigorous manipulation no doubt vastly reduced the numbers of these genuine Americana. Just the same, bank collectors are indefatigable optimists who believe that the find of a decade is at this moment reposing in some dusty attic, barn, or trunk, awaiting discovery.
        True, there never was much money inside any of these banks. The worth was in what the bank taught and in the bank itself!


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