Manuscript by Mark Haber
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In this day of easy spending, when thrift is largely set aside as the
unpleasant task of extreme conservatives, and penny-saving is forced on
children like so much nasty medicine, it is enlightening to recall other
days when penny wisdom was not only popular, but fun.
Evidence of this past is offered in this small grouping of old
Mechanical banks, and the pictures are representative of the great
variety and treatment of design as well as excellence of mechanical
There exists such a wide range of designs in the cast iron
Mechanical Banks that it is difficult to do more than roughly classify
them into a few general groups, such as shooting banks, animal banks,
bust banks, house banks, etc. Even within such groupings will be found
an amazingly wide range of subjects and treatments, and this diversity
is accentuated by the fact that various manufacturers, sometimes even
different designers for the same maker, tended to treat the same subject
differently at various stages of the Mechanical Bank era.
Unquestionably, The J. & E. Stevens Foundry in Cromwell, Conn. is
the oldest toy manufacturer in the United Stakes, and both the original
and the most prolific designer and manufacturer of Mechanical Banks.
This then, is the home of the Mechanical Bank, its birthplace, and the
place where for sixty years, more types and larger quantities of such
banks were produced than at any other plant.
It is not so long since the last Mechanical Banks of Stevens make
were turned out; 1928 marked the end of a long and prosperous era when
the charm of the Mechanical Bank finally gave way to the manufacture of
cap pistols, and which ceased with the outbreak of World War 2,
when Russell R. Frisbie closed the foundry and subsequently disposed of
the plant, due to a number of difficulties, which included inability to
obtain the necessary quality of iron, as well as labor difficulties. A
decline of interest by the general public as well as the toy industry,
also contributed to the demise of this company which was originally
established in 1843 by two brothers, John and Elisha Stevens.
The comparative present day scarcity of Mechanical Banks depends to
a certain extent upon the period in which it was manufactured, but more
upon the quantities which were turned out when the bank was current. It
must also be emphasized that these banks were fragile and when dropped
were easily broken and then discarded. Children played with these banks,
and the usual life of a toy is about two or three months, so it is not
at all surprising that even though these banks were made by the many
thousands, very few have survived the period ranging from 40 to about 90
years. They have melted like the snow, and the surviving specimens are
indeed difficult to find and to purchase.
The first Mechanical Banks were originated in this state a few
years after the close of the Civil War, and were made possible by the
skill and ingenuity of American craftsmen, largely of Conn. and almost
the State of the American toy industry. The manufacture of these banks
on a mass-production basis, was made possible by the high state of
development that the manufacturing and selling branches of the industry
had reached even at so early a date. The types of Mechanical Banks
manufactured seem almost endless in design and variety. There were the
boys who swallowed the coin and rolled their eyes; William Tell shooting
the apple off his son's head with a coin; a horserace started by
inserting a penny; and several hundred other varieties. The Mechanical
Bank was actually a double purpose toy: an object designed to provoke an
interest in saving, and a toy to play with.
In conclusion it may be stated that the actual production of the
banks; the sculpture, the molding, finishing, assembling, painting, and
other operations, was manifestly a craft, and the original creation of
the bank was quite definitely a form of art and of considerable
importance and interest.
THE GIANT BANK
Here is a fine and well executed representation of a real giant
standing in front of his cave. Here, indeed is the very giant who Jack
Killed, when he arrived at the top of the beanstalk. This is
substantiated by an ad found in an old 1885 magazine, with a caption
which reads, "THE GIANT THAT JACKED KILLED", together with a picture of
the bank. The desirability of this bank is not only its scarcity, but
the sentimental relationship with the period of our childhood, and the
thrilling story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Depressing the lever causes
tongue to extend and the coin is placed thereon. Release of the lever
causes the tongue to recede accompanied by movement of the lower jaw and
both arms. The coin is carried through an aperture in the back of the
neck with enough momentum to cause it to enter into a slot in the rocky
cave in the rear. The bank is well sculptured and fine likeness of a
mean looking giant.
This very attractive and desirable bank, was produced by
Charles Bailey, the most prolific designer and sculptor of Mechanical
Banks. The bank was manufactured by The Stevens Foundry in 1906. The
operation of the bank is accomplished by turning the figures which are
mounted on a narrow platform, a complete half turn, which locks it into
position. The coin is placed into the slot; the lever pressed, and the
figures return to the former position. The dancing girl or Columbine
received impetus from the semi-circular gear during this release and
causes her to twirl or spin for a period.
Produced by the Stevens Foundry and designed by J. H. Bowen of
Philadelphia in 1890. This bank differs from the conventional mechanical
bank, inasmuch as the animation is of sustained action. This is
accomplished by one turn of the wind-up spring; placement of the coin
between the rabbit's legs, and depressing the operating lever. The coin
drops into the lower receptacle, and the bank goes into action. The girl
turns her head from side to side, moves her legs back and forth and
skips rope about 35 times in continuous action. A great favorite with
little girls years ago, and still a favorite with older collectors
today. The foundry had difficulties in its production as well as
limited sales in relation to other banks. The retail price of $2.00
limited sales to such a degree that production was soon halted. $2.00
for a bank during the period of 1890 was prohibitive for the average who
earned $7.00 to $10.00 weekly.
THE BOY SCOUT
The Boy Scout Bank Commemorates the founding of the Boy Scouts
of America on Feb. 8, 1910, and is a picturesque and very attractive
bank, illustrating in part the activities of the now world wide
The Scout Movement was founded in England by Sir Robert
Baden-Powell in 1908, and was brought to the United States by W. D.
Boyce, a publisher of Chicago. In 1910 it was incorporated and it was
granted a Federal charter by Congress in 1916.
The Boy Scout Bank has a rather limited action, which is
accomplished by placing the coin into the slot on top of the tree, and
pressing the lever. This causes the scout to raise the white flaw which
is lettered "BOY SCOUT CAMP". Release of the lever causes the coin to
drop and flag lowered.