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Mechanical Toy Banks
The Connecticut Historical Society BULLETIN
Volume 20, Number 3, Hartford, July 1955, Pages 65-68

Gathering the mechanical toy banks for our exhibit, Gallery 2, June through September, has been a rare pleasure. As the banks came in from the collections of Dr. W. G. Downes of West Hartford, Michael Wolek, West Hartford, and Charles A. Currier of Simsbury, we could not help but wonder at the inexhaustible variety of subjects whereby a penny in the bank will produce not just one, but in some instances as many as three mechanical actions.

As an example, the catalogues of the J. & E. Stevens Company and other miscellaneous material on loan from Mark Haber of Wethersfield, tell us that by placing a coin held by the girl in the Speaking Dog Bank and pressing a lever, "the girl's arm moves quickly and deposits the coin through a trapdoor in the bench. At the same time the dog opens and closes his mouth as if speaking and also wags his tail." As for the Eagle Bank, instructions are to "place a coin in the eagle's beak, press the lever, and the eaglets rise from the nest, actually crying for food. As the eagle bends forward to feed them, the coin falls in the nest and disappears in the receptacle below."

In the Bad Accident Bank, by placing a coin under the feet of the driver and pressing the lever, "the boy jumps into the road, frightening the donkey, and as he rears, the cart and driver are thrown backwards, when the coin falls into the body of the cart and disappears." For the Cabin Bank, we are told to "place the coin upon the roof above the negro's head, move the handle of the white-wash brush, and the negro will be made to stand on his head and kick he coin in the bank." To operate the Little Fat Man Bank (or Tammany Bank) "place a coin in his hand and see how promptly he pockets it, and how politely he bows his thanks." In the Educated Pig Bank, the pig catches the coin in his mouth, moves his tongue and then swallows it, or the hen (Hen and Chicken Bank), by placing a coin in front of her and pressing the lever, calls the chicken which "springs from under her for the coin which disappears."

Such inventions as mechanical banks could not remain forgotten long, and they readily deserve their present status of rare collectors items, worth many times their original price. With them goes an equally interesting history, best recorded in a book entitled Mechanical Toy Banks by Louis H. Hertz, published by Mark Haber, 1947, from which the following facts are learned and due to space limitations are briefly stated here.

Mechanical toy banks date back to a few years after the Civil War until its final period about 1928 when the mechanical bank industry, led by the J. & E. Stevens Company, was supplanted by modern and easier methods of production. As they are remembered, and seen in our exhibition, the true mechanical bank was made of cast iron, was hand finished and painted by special decorators or "stripers" who did the lining, eyes and small detail work. "Trying" was a term used when the final bank was tested, prior to packing in its individual wooden box, to see that all was in working condition.

Banks were produced on a mass-production scale, with almost every design patented. The patent usually applied to the mechanism, and its features applied to any bank of its type. The Jolly Nigger bank patent also covered Humpty Dumpty, and the Creedmore patent of 1877 applied to all shooting banks for the next seventeen years. The patent design covered one specific design of a house, figure, or whatever was intended to be portrayed, which prevented anyone from manufacturing a similar-looking article. These latter patents covered a variety of time, and usually the shortest and least expensive of three and a half years. The first patent, No. 70,569 issued November, 1867 to Kellis Horde of Washington, D.C., was manufactured in tin and operated by blowing into a tube so that an alligator, or similar figure, would emerge from a shelter, take the coin in its mouth and retire. Though the patents are helpful in identifying a bank, they do not necessarily mean that the bank was ever put into production, and if it was, it does not mean that production can be dated by the patent alone since many had an intervening seventeen years before they needed to be placed on the market.

A variety of subjects were used: the cartoon type of Happy Hooligan, Foxy Grampa, the Katzenjammer Kids, the Shoot the Chutes bank featuring Buster Brown and his dog Tige. There were mythical people, the Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe, Punch and Judy, Little Red Riding Hood, Santa Claus, Uncle Remus and others. Some had a disputed political significance such as the Tammany Bank, the Freedman Bank, Teddy (Roosevelt) and the Bear, or General Butler in the form of a frog; and there were Uncle Sam, William Tell, the Stump Speaker Bank, and many, many others.

Leader in the field was the Stevens foundry in Cromwell, Connecticut, which began as the J. & E. Stevens Company, the oldest toy manufacturing firm in the United States, and bears the distinction of being the original and most prolific manufacturer of mechanical banks. The company was established by John and Elisha Stevens in 1843. It developed from the production of hardware items, coat and hat hooks, pins, door buttons, shutter screws, axes, tack and shoe hammers as well as some toys and toy parts. By 1853 the Stevens company was making miniature sad iron stands and iron wheels for children's toy wagons. No direct evidence is given as to the introduction of iron banks into the company, although it is believed that the event occurred between 1869 and 1871 when the earliest Stevens bank, Hall's Excelsior, was patented on December 21, 1869.

It is impossible to relate the history of this company without mentioning some of the men who made it famous. There entered into the firm one Russell Frisbie who, like the earlier John Hall, had given his talents to the Stevens company as inventor and designer of mechanical banks. In 1866 he became associated with the firm as general superintendent, designer and inventor. In 1868 Edward S. Coe, nephew of the Stevens brothers, was connected with the company as bookkeeper, as treasurer in 1872, and finally as president in 1898, retaining both positions until 1907. Coe died in 1926 and Russell Frisbie's son, Charles B. Frisbie, became president, indicating a continuous Stevens-Frisbie family affair. The last mechanical banks made by the Stevens company, the old favorites of Teddy and the Bear, William Tell and others, continued until 1928 when the cap pistol crowded out the banks as a more profitable line of production.

Nor is Charles A. Bailey to be overlooked in his connection with the Stevens foundry. He was born September 16, 1848, was raised in Cobalt, and there had a small shop in the back of his house where he perfected his art of pattern making and designing of toys. Where he got his training is not known, except that he was born and raised in and around the heart of the toy industry, and as he passed it on to others in his later life, so must he have learned it with the same intensity. His first bank patent was issued in 1879 for a still watch bank. 1880 is the year given for his first mechanical bank—the Baby Elephant Bank which "opens at 10:00." In 1882 his Cat and Mouse Bank appeared, cast in white metal. Though a free-lancer and manufacturer of his own in Cobalt, Russell Frisbie saw Bailey's worth to the trade, and he was induced to join the Stevens company on a permanent basis. In 1916 Bailey, best pattern maker and designer of the Stevens Company, went again into business on his own, with letter-head reading, in the 1920's:

                                        Cromwell, Conn., — — — — — — 192 —

It is said that when Bailey was permanently connected with the Stevens company, he designed, invented or made the pattern for almost every bank they produced. He was a skilled craftsman, as Jerome Secor might be termed an artist, and his work was more than a mere source of income. It was not unusual for Bailey to produce a small model of his bank, buy and mix the paints and decorate the banks himself. Most of the rare surviving models are said to be done by him. Charles A. Bailey died February 14, 1926, leaving a distinct gap in a highly specialized field.

While the Stevens company and its associates were making history in the mechanical bank trade, Jerome Secor, born in Liberty Village, New York on October 8, 1839, was holding his own as one of the great names in the toy industry. Actually, his course had been a devious one since toys were his side-line and hobby, and it was through the failure of the Secor Sewing Machine Company of Bridgeport, following the panic of 1876, that his mind seriously turned to the business of making mechanical toys. He had purchased half of a double house on West Avenue in Bridgeport, and found that the owner and occupant of the other half was none other than Edward Ives, then on his way to fame as America's foremost toy manufacturer. Through association with Ives, Secor perfected and started the manufacturing of mechanical singing birds in cages. The music came from a box at the base, and Secor not only invented the design, but also the tools and composed the song. The bird was covered with real feathers and was wired to move to the rhythm of the tune. He invented a series of clockwork toys—the Freedman Bank, a white girl in a lace-trimmed dress playing the piano, and a series of four negros, one playing a banjo, another shaking a tambourine, another shaking a castanet, and the last waving a round fan. In the Freedman bank the hand was so constructed, with separate brass fingers which operated independently of each other, that the figure would smile, turn his head, scoop the coin across the table top into the hole in the surface, raise his other hand to his face, thumb his nose, and finally shake his head. Other inventions were the "mechanical warbler," "Secor's Improved Songster," "The American Gold Finch," as well as another type of toy—the cast iron clockwork locomotive. In 1884 Secor sold out to Ives, and in 1899 he left Bridgeport for Derby, Connecticut, to take charge of the Williams Typewriter Company, which eventually became the Secor Typewriter Company. He continued to make his toys, as he always had—as a hobby and side-line—until almost the very end, September 19, 1923, when he died at the age of 84.

Mechanical banks took hold, and it was natural that a score of companies were not to be outdone by the established firms who got on the bandwagon first. An astonishing number of firms, covering such areas as Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Buffalo, Trenton, Cleveland, Keene, New Hampshire, Culver City, California, New Market, Ontario, Canada, were in the business. Connecticut alone could boast of the H. L. Judd Company, Wallingford, Smith and Egge Manufacturing Company, Bridgeport, Mechanical Novelty Company, New Britain, Burdick-Corbin Company Hartford, Ives & Company, Ives, Blakesley & Company, Ives, Blakesley & Williams, Ives & Williams, Ives Manufacturing Company, Ives Corporation, all of Bridgeport, and the Stevens company with its various names, of Cromwell.

Even though the old cast iron mechanical bank has disappeared from the assembly line, it has continued in a number of forms. Take, for instance, the pulp composition Hitler Pig Bank, produced in 1942 by the Otis-Lawson Company, New York N.Y. In 1946 this same firm brought out a colored plastic mechanical Pig Bank which grunts when a coin is inserted—a far cry, but in principal the same as what we remembered and liked, the fun and entertainment of an ingenious invention, the mechanical toy bank.

This is a case of something which happened during the life-time of many of us, and yet specific records are still lacking in many instances and good specimens of the banks are extremely difficult to locate. In these brief remarks, we have indicated the importance of some Connecticut men and firms in the designing and production of mechanical banks. This is well within the scope of The Connecticut Historical Society, and it is to be hoped that a representative collection of these banks will ultimately be preserved in the Society. Manuscripts, photographs and printed material would be appreciated so that those interested in further research on the subject may have access to the information.

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