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COIN WORLD, December 21, 1966

Spotlight Moves Back Through Time, Revealing
19th Century Joy Makers


Early Mechanical Banks
Rate As Educational Toys

By Jay Guren

   A quick glance through any toy catalog makes Christmas, 1966 seem like our merriest mechanized one yet. When we see the animation "canned" electric power puts into every kind of toy, from robots to racers, to baby dolls, we can't help but ponder over the dull, "dead" toys of Yesteryear.
     This of course, is only until we strike upon that one great area of juvenile joy in the past, the mechanical bank. It becomes pure numismatic whimsey, to roll back the clock a few decades, and look in on a typical Christmas eve.
     The year is 1877; the day, December 24. A mantle of snow covers the ground, and an occasional sleigh glides over it, silently, except for the silvery twinkle of the horses' bells. Evening has come soon, and it appears as if more snow will fall by Christmas day.
     One sleigh glides to a halt beside a merchant's house. The blankets in which the rider is wrapped also conceal gifts for the children. Among them is one the merchant has silently chuckled over most of the way home. Like dads since Santa Claus was first conceived, he has already tried out this gift.
     The merchant has long since convinced himself that this is an educational toy, one which will teach his seven - year - old the importance of thrift. A cast iron soldier stands with rifle in hand taking aim and ready to project the coin which has been placed on the rifle barrel into a slot on a tree trunk


     The doting father also has thoughtfully provided some ammunition: Ten gleaming, new Indian Head cents. Their eventual fate is difficult to determine; we can be certain however, that they will not be in Uncirculated condition, if ever retrieved for a collection. The bank, on the other hand, will amuse this seven-year - old, the brothers and sisters who follow him, and still another generation or two of children, before passing through the hands of an auctioneer to a collector.
     And the collector, on Christmas, 1966, will lure a grandchild of his own from the slick, battery - operated toys under the Christmas tree, to the old, coin-operated marksman!

     The development of the mechanical bank in the later portion of the 19th century represented the peak of a trend which began in 1793, the same year the first U.S. coins were struck by the Philadelphia Mint. These banks, because of their basic purpose, have enjoyed a tenuous relationship to numismatics right through to the present day, when they are assiduously collected as many coin series.
     Indeed, the ranks of mechanical bank collectors include such dedicated numismatists as Larry Freeman and Coin World's associate editor, James G. Johnson. The former was co-author with John D. Meyer of the volume, "Old Penny Banks," published in 1960 by Century House, Watkins Glen, N. Y.
     The virtues propounded by Benjamin Franklin regarding thrift no doubt had their effect on the early generations of the Republic, and made popular the first clay or pottery banks, as well as glass and tin banks. The pottery and glass banks not designed with much consideration for the collecting interests of posterity; once filled with coins, they had to be shattered, if the accumulated savings were to be enjoyed. The period of hard times associated with the Jackson administration no doubt took many treasured specimens of these early banks out of circulation.
     Tin banks, soldered together and painted in bright colors, were generally replaced by cast iron after 1860. These first cast iron banks were "still," depicting houses, historic landmarks, animals and birds. A decade later, the "action" banks came on the scene.

     Mechanical banks "sugar-coated" the concept of thrift, while at the same time providing some form of entertainment. Various mechanisms, patented generally by Yankee inventors, caused a little girl to skip rope; a bear to open his mouth and swallow the coin, or a bird to deposit the coin in the chimney of a church building.
     These feats were mild, of course, compared to that of the "Paddy and His Pig" bank. Here the coin is placed on the pig's nose, which Paddy holds between his legs. When a lever is pressed, the pig kicks the coin into Paddy's mouth, and Paddy rolls his eyes.
     Loose and lanky performers were the subjects of many mechanical banks. An old-time showman stands in the doorway of the "Cabin Bank" in the Johnson collection. He turns a somersault, and kicks the coin through a slot in the roof, when the handle on the brush which hangs on the side of the cabin is moved.
     Equally popular were performing dogs and monkeys, balky mules, frogs and elephants.
     The mechanical banks were regarded as quite "special" gifts at Christmas, and sold at retail, at from $1 to $5. These represented fairly substantial prices to pay for a toy in the 19th century. However, they apparently proved worth their price, and many have remained operational for over nine decades.
     Although the concept of thrift has been replaced by the friendly loan company, and the spring-and-lever and other mechanisms by the dry cell battery, the "penny banks" of yesteryear still have great special appeal -- for youngsters and oldsters alike. Ask anyone who has ever placed a coin in one.


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