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Penny-Savers Of Yesteryear
Designed for Humor and Thrift

          SAY “I have a mechanical penny bank that really works,” to a collector and he is likely to stand on his head or go into as odd contortions as some of his own banks, because good mechanical banks are getting as rare as rocs’ eggs.
This hobby of collecting old penny banks has mushroomed over the last few years until it has become a business in itself. A famous book about them, written by the collector, John D. Meyer, is definitive and a “must” for all collectors.
          Old catalogs of the manufacturers that sold the banks are antique items themselves and sell for good prices. There are dealers who go in for banks almost exclusively, both the mechanical ones that move and the less desirable “still” banks where nothing happens but the rising glow of thrift when you deposit your penny in some ingenious place.
          I can readily understand the fascination in gathering such working banks, especially when I come face to face with a collection such as that owned by Mr. and Mrs. William Roup, of Pottstown, who were kind enough to permit photographing some of their best ones. They relate that Pennsylvania is the “bank” State in the collector’s atlas.
The stories back of the banks, their rarity and their value, is intensely interesting but, to me, three facts make the overall story of mechanical banks especially so:
          First, that all were designed for pennies, and that 75 years ago the penny was so worthy of saving that skilled artisans went to work to make the saving an easy and enticing process.
          Second, the ingenuity that makes a battered old iron bank work perfectly with hairtrigger precision today – though of course many have to be repaired and put into working order.
          And third, the humor of them. Aside from the fact that many old-fashioned things seem funny to modern eyes, these were designed to bring a laugh. They were the cartoons of yesterday modeled in iron.
          Thus in this collection you will find the Dentist bank. All the banks have names, probably tagged in the first catalogs, or maybe picked up over the years for identification. In the Dentist bank we find a raucous pantomime of a scene in a dentist’s office – always a good cartoon subject – where a penny deposited in the dentist’s pocket will start him pulling a tooth and the patient to fall back out of his chair while the penny disappears into safekeeping.
          The Kicking Cow bank will send the milker off his stool with the milk bucket in his face. A bank might go further and lampoon a political situation, such as the labor and capital routine in The Breadwinner bank where a penny is placed on a plank labeled Monopoly and is sledge-hammered off into the rich man’s barrel.
Mechanical banks are not yet 100 years old. The oldest dates from about 1869 and they were made until the early 1900’s. The latest in the Roup collection is called the Squeaking Doll’s Head, a 1921 version of an iron bank where a baby’s head is breaking out of an eggshell. Here a penny inserted in the bottom makes the doll-baby cry.
          For rarity I was shown one that is said to be the only one of its kind in existence. It is an iron Presto bank. Other Presto banks have been found in tin. In this one a penny is dropped into a box shaped something like a cash register, and when you look into a peep-hole in the back you find you have a quarter instead! It’s done with mirrors, naturally, but the motto on the front tells you, “We offer aid to all who strive to make one penny twenty-five.”
          Perhaps the most valuable bank in this collection is the famous Harlequin and Columbine, the goal of many a collector. Here three dancing figures revolve around each other. The rarity, rather than ingenuity, makes it tops in price. Another valuable bank of which only three are known to exist is the Sewing Machine bank where the needleshaft works up and down when the penny goes in. Still another, the Fowler, is a triumph in ingenuity. When the penny is inserted the hunter takes aim, fires a real cap in his gun, the bird flies into the air (released by a spring) and the hunter swings to bring it in line before it falls dead at the end of its string.
In the photo you will also see the Skipping Rope bank where an iron girl in Victorian costume nimbly skips rope, and the professor Pug-Frog bank, a nursery rhyme affair with Mother Goose looking on.
        There are many other fine banks in the Roup collection, including the Girl in the Victorian Chair and a revolving Ferris Wheel bank which is at least a foot high.

(Web Note: Many thanks to Mrs. Edward Early, daughter of William and Lena Roup, for providing a copy of the above article.)

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