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Though an extensive collection may seem out of the question, every collector of Americana may own at least one of these


Mechanical Banks
By William H. Montgomery (Photos by Doris E. Montgomery)
THE SPINNING WHEEL for February 1957


The Spinning Wheel, 1957 photo 1ANTIQUE mechanical banks have long been collectors' items. Today they are being so assiduously sought by bankers and financial institutions as well as established collectors that the casual collector may find them so scarce as to seem almost unobtainable. Prices, too, have spiraled to such fantastic heights as to discourage the newcomer from the thought of acquiring a sizeable collection. However, at least one antique bank, either a good mechanical or a good still, is within range of every collector's purse and province - and belongs in every over-all collection of Americana.

These banks, which reached their height of popularity in the 1870s and 1880s, though some were made earlier, and others as late as 1915, were primarily toys rather than objects for the encouragement of thrift. Nearly all of them can be operated by pressing the lever or knob without the necessity of depositing a coin. Because most of the banks were of iron, shatterable if dropped, it is no wonder that a majority of those manufactured have been broken. The chipped and worn paint on many remaining attest to hard use through the years.

A large part of the charm of these old banks stems from the fact that they are pure Americana. Even the substance of which they were manufactured, iron, was not plentiful enough in other countries to be used in children's toys. However, iron foundries in the United States found toys profitable, and employed really good artists to design the banks and plan the concealed mechanisms which made the parts move. The designers used many familiar figures in their choice of subject. Banks appeared featuring such typical American sports as baseball, football and bowling, or such popular types of entertainment as magicians, Punch & Judy Shows, performing animals, and acrobats. They ranged from a Preacher in the Pulpit bank to popular comic strip characters, like Uncle Remus, the Katzenjammer Kids and the "Shoot the Chutes" bank with Buster Brown and Tigue.

Many of them portray a raucous humor, with people getting into accidents, often with animals as the cause of the trouble. Butting goats, kicking cows, bucking mules and buffalo provided slapstick comedy. The animals are generally well-proportioned and pleasing to the eye, and the people, lovable and good-humored, never seemed to mind much when they are knocked over to stand on their heads or lie flat on their backs. Often the exaggerated facial expressions are very funny. The old bank designers, in their zeal to make the children laugh, created masterpieces of humor which have fascinated generations of adults as well.

The prices of old mechanical banks vary a great deal depending on their rarity. While the "Kicking Cow" and "Always Did 'Spise a Mule" are perhaps equally attractive and similar in action, the "Kicking Cow" is much more rare. John D. Meyer's book, copyright in 1952, prices this " 'Spise a Mule" bank at $22, and the Kicking Cow bank at $200.

The Dentist bank, pictured, was originally sold by the manufacturer for $8 a dozen. The selling price listed by Ina Hayward Bellows in her Old Mechanical Banks, published in 1940, was between $20 and $30 each. In 1952, John D. Meyer in his Handbook of Old Mechanical Penny Banks, set the current price at $165. In April 1955, a catalogue published by David Hollander, New York, offering for sale a number of mechanical and still banks from the Chrysler Collection, listed the same bank, in fine condition, with original paint at $350. It is a safe guess that today's spiraling prices will seem low to a future generation.

In the parlance of the trade, "O.P." means "Original Paint" and "O.F.," "Original Finish." A bank is said to be in "mint" condition if it still has all or virtually all of its original paint. Of course, a bank which is "mint" is worth more than the same bank in a badly faded condition, or with much of the paint gone or badly chipped. However, most collectors want nothing whatever to do with a bank that has been repainted. Hence an old bank, even with little or none of its original paint left is more valuable than if repainted. Many repaint jobs are crude in both conception and execution, but even the most expert restorer, bent on deception, would find it as hard to repaint a bank in the original colors to fool a connoisseur of banks as to counterfeit money to deceive a Treasury man.

Non-experts who contemplate buying a mechanical bank would do well to seek the advice of experienced bank collectors in order to avoid the pitfalls of buying a repainted job, worth, perhaps, only a fraction of the price asked, or of paying a too high a price for one of the less rare banks.

It is to be remembered that some of the most attractive mechanical banks are the cheapest because they were immensely popular and sold in the largest numbers. Rarer banks may be those which were more fragile, or ones with less popular appeal which were manufactured in small quantities. Some of the rarest of all are ones which a manufacturer put on the market only to find he could not sell them advantageously and withdrew the model after a comparatively small number had been made.

The Spinning Wheel, 1957 photo 2The Spinning Wheel, 1957 photo 3

 

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