USED TO BE FUN
By RAYMOND B. BROWN
NEW secretary of a millionaire industrialist, going over his boss'
incoming mail, took up a postal card that read: "Shipping speaking
dog today." Another communication in the same mail read: "Fat
man accompanies frog and serpent this week."
The secretary was reasonably sure the old man was not starting a
carnival, but apparently quick preparations had to be made for receiving
a dog, a frog, a serpent, and a fat man, so he hastened to his boss for
"Ah, good, I've been waiting for them for some time," said the
boss. "Put them on my desk when they arrive." Then at the look
of amazement on his secretary's face, he explained he was an avid
collector of old mechanical banks, and the "Speaking Dog," the
"Fat Man," and "The Frog and Serpent," were merely
the trade names for three banks he had wanted to add to his collection.
As his secretary was still looking at him in an incredulous fashion, he
added defensively, "You've heard of Walter Chrysler, haven't
The secretary nodded.
"Well, he had one of the biggest and best collections in the
country." And he added gleefully, "Some of the biggest and
smartest business and professional men collect them."
There are about 250 different old mechanical banks, but because some are
extremely rare, no collector owns anywhere near a complete collection.
The first known mechanical bank is called a "Mechanical Alms
Box" and is believed to have been made between the years 206 B.C.
and 220 A.D. This bank is of glazed pottery, green in color, and is
still in excellent condition with exception of the little figure of a
bear on top which is badly broken. When a coin is dropped into the slot
just in front of the animal, the bear nods its head. This bank is owned
by the Metropolitan Museum of New York and is pictured and described in
Ina Hayward Bellows' very fine book, Old Mechanical Banks.
known as "still" banks have been in use almost since the
beginning of time. But our grandfathers, to charm coins out of the young
hands of their children, commenced thinking of the feature of movement.
In December, 1869, Mr. John Hall, a New Englander, invented the first
mechanical bank in this country. It was called "Hall's Excelsior
Bank," and, though not complicated, was exceedingly ingenious. It
is a little house of cast iron with a bell and cupola. When you pull the
bell, the roof of the cupola goes up and a monkey appears. The monkey
accepts your coin and disappears. This bank was such a success and so
many were sold that many competitors began working on almost every type
of figure imaginable.
Six years after Hall's bank appeared, another New Englander, Mr. F.
Frisbee, filed a patent from Cromwell, Connecticut, on what is probably
one of the most unique and best known of all mechanical banks. This bank
is of cast iron and shows the figure of a stout man with a moustache
sitting in a chair with his right hand outstretched. On the side of the
chair, in a circle, are the words: Tammany Bank.
At the time, Tammany was in terrible repute because of exposures of the
Tweed Ring of graft, Tweed had just been revealed as one of the worst
scoundrels New York had ever known and had been indicted for stealing
millions. The bank appeared at just the right time to be talked about
and the design of the bank was almost perfect for the purpose. The man
in the chair resembled Tweed; the right hand, tilted upward as if
beckoning, appeared to be literally demanding a coin. Between the
fingers of his right hand is a space to hold a penny, nickel, dime, or
quarter. The coin being placed in the hand causes it to tilt down toward
a slot cut in the left hand pocket of the man's coat. When the coin
drops into the sitter's pocket, the man tips his head in thanks.
The Tammany Bank sold in huge quantities, not only because it is one of
the most unique of mechanical banks but it also caught the fancy of the
public when the names Tweed and Tammany were on almost everyone's lips.
Though Mr. Frisbie made a tremendous success with this bank, Mr. Hall
continued to be the leader in patenting banks.
An astounding variety of mechanical banks have been manufactured since
those days, but only a dozen or more really caught on and had huge
sales. Anything that occurred of interest seemed to give some craftsmen
an idea for a bank. The Spanish American War inspired several types of
shooting banks — the coin being placed on the barrel of the gun to be
shot into a tree, a boat, or some similar receptacle.
Just a year or so ago, a well-known distillery issued two types of
banks, one numbered and limited to 1,000, the other, practically the
same bank but in colors instead of white metal. The numbered and
registered bank sold for $10 but, already being scarce, now brings
around $25. These two banks, in the shape of a bottle, carry the
advertisement of the distillery.
But Mr. Hall's banks evidently must have been the best sellers for,
after more than 70 years, there are still thousands in existence.
New England led the way in manufacturing banks until the end of the era.
New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago manufactured a few banks but the
lists of patents shows the New England states far ahead in the bank
business. Incidentally, there are probably more mechanical bank
collectors in these states than in any other section of the country.
Almost all of the mechanical banks are scarce, Hobbies, the bible
of collectors, has, as a rule, about 15 dealers and collectors
advertising to buy banks from $10 to $200 each (according to the bank's
scarcity), to the one or two advertising to sell banks. Of the
approximately 250 banks recognized as originals, or collectors' items
— manufactured between the years 1869 and 1890 — only about a dozen
can be purchased for as little as $25 each. As the craze for collecting
mechanical banks increased, the prices went up.
Although most of the mechanical banks were of cast iron, many were of
tin, a few of wood, and some of leather or pottery. While strictly
speaking, mechanical banks are not antiques because they are not, as a
rule, anywhere near 100 years old, those for sale are usually found in
antique shops except when purchased by mail.
The craze for collecting both mechanical and still banks has been
increasing rapidly and it is a rare thing to find one in the usual shop.
As a matter of fact, several clubs of enthusiasts have been formed. But
so many of these banks were broken by persons in a hurry to get the
coins from them, and so many others have been lost or destroyed by fire,
probably it will not be many years before even the more common ones will
be in great demand.