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1966_Elect_Workers.jpg (16127 bytes)MECHANICAL COIN BANKS
another in the Journal Hobby Series

WHAT a delight it must have been for a child in the "good old days" to find a brightly-colored mechanical coin bank (most likely his only gift) under the beautifully decorated tree on Christmas morning. Today’s children, with all their toys, couldn’t begin to imagine it. But for little Johnny and Susie of yesteryears, the excitement of seeing the small figure of the "Boy on Trapeze Bank" take a few turns on a bar or hearing the shot from the "William Tell Bank," as they watched the father shoot an apple off his son’s head — all for the price of a single coin — was a real thrill of a lifetime.

Mama and papa were delighted, too. A savings bank instilled into their offspring a sense of thrift, a quality once considered an American virtue. Last, but not least, the toy manufacturers were most delighted. They mass-produced the cast-iron mechanical coin banks and sold them by the hundreds of thousands.

Banks Had Real Appeal
There was certainly nothing old-fashioned about the psychology those clever, turn-of-the-century businessmen used in their sales pitch, either. Their catalogs, filled with full-page illustrations and detailed explanations about the workings of the mechanical banks, were enough to make any youngster’s eyes pop out. And, naturally, the kids pressured their parents with endless coaxings for new-fangled banks that were quite expensive at the price of one dollar apiece.

As Johnny perused the many pages of the catalog, he became hilarious just imagining that the drop of a coin in the "Bad Accident Bank" (J. and E Stevens Company, manufacturers) could cause a mule to rear up and upset the cart and its driver, when a little colored boy suddenly darted in front of the startled animal. And, when a coin was inserted into the "Dentist Bank," the dentist, holding a forceps at the patient’s mouth, fell on his back with the tooth clenched in the pincers.

Little Susie also experienced great excitement in looking through the catalog and dreaming of having a "Little Red Riding Hood Bank" all of her own. It made the chills run up her back just thinking how frightened Little Red Riding Hood, sitting there on her grandma’s bed, must be every time someone puts a coin in the pillow and the mask falls from grandma’s face, revealing the big bad wolf.

It is very likely that papa stole a few looks at the illustrations, too, and decided the "Dark Town Battery Bank" was just the thing for little Johnny. Then, together papa and Johnny could watch the pleased expression come over the pitcher’s face every time the batter at the plate swung and missed the ball.

While manufacturers’ ads appealed to parents with the "encourage thrift in the young" bit, they cleverly hid one important fact in the fine print. Most of the mechanical coin banks could be operated with or without a coin, for they were actually animated toys.

The Most Popular Banks
In order to promote sales — competition among manufacturers was keen — designers, in modeling their banks, drew ideas from every walk of life; thus, every bank had its own story. The theme of humor at another’s expense, as used in the "Dentist Bank" and the "Bad Accident Bank," was very popular.

Another favorite among the children was the subject of animals. There was "The Elephant and Three Clowns" (patented in 1882, manufactured by J. and E. Stevens) decorated in vivid colors. In this model the elephant stands on an inverted tub as one clown sits astride the animal. A second clown, holding two gold rings, stands below the elephant’s trunk. At the rear of the animal, a third clown holds a ball with his feet. After a coin is placed between the gold rings, the ball (lever) can be pushed down and the mechanism is set in motion. The rider turns at the waist and the elephant pushes the coin into the tub with his trunk.

The "Zoo Bank," one of the smaller banks, naturally used animal figures. Upon inserting a coin into the bank, a monkey’s head protruding from a window of the cupola can be pushed out of sight. Simultaneously, the shutters on each side of the door swing open and the head of a bear pops out of one window and that of a lion out of the other.

Another animal bank, one of the few banks operated by a spring-wound motor is the "Organ Grinder and Performing Bear Bank," patented in 1882, manufactured by Kyser and Rex of Philadelphia. When a coin is dropped into the organ, a lever can be pushed and the bear dances as his master cranks the instrument. Other popular animal banks of the time were the "Trick Monkey," "Trick Dog," "Trick Elephant," all manufactured by the Hubley Company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

If parents desired a bank with a Biblical connotation, they probably selected the "Jonah and Whale Bank." Not only did the bank serve as a religious reminder for the child, but it was great fun for him to see poor Jonah get swallowed headfirst by the whale when its tail was pressed downward.

One of the few banks designed to educate was the "Education and Economy Bank," manufactured by Proctor Raymond Company, Buffalo, New York, in 1895. When a dime is inserted into the slot, a knob can be turned clockwise and a paper with a question and answer on one side and a famous quotation on the opposite side is released from the bank.

The "Picture Gallery Bank" (manufactured by Shepard Hardware Company, Buffalo, New York) was designed to teach a child the alphabet, simple words and numbers. A two-lever operation reveals a picture of an object, the spelling of the name of the object and the first letter of the word.

The "Afghanistan Bank" is a good example of a design inspired by a series of historical events. This small bank represents a gate entrance in a high wall with the word, Herat, above the gate. A lion and bear stand on each side of the entrance. According to history, the old city of Herat was surrounded by a wall but, nevertheless, it was constantly invaded by enemies. Finally in the 18th century, England and Russia came to the city’s defense and guarded it against further destruction. When a coin is inserted into the bank, the lion, representing England, and a bear, representing Russia, move toward the gate as if to guard it against harm.

Patriotic Theme
The spirit of patriotism was not overlooked in the design of banks. In the "Uncle Sam Bank," the old gent, dressed appropriately in his red, white and blue suit, showed the youngsters of years ago how he saved his money. When a coin is placed in his outstretched hand, he nods his head in acknowledgement and places the contribution in the carpetbag by his side.

Naturally, the influence of current events was incorporated into the mechanical coin bank designs. When Teddy Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear during his 1906 hunting expedition, "Teddy Bear Banks" were soon added to the long selection. An element of surprise is an outstanding factor in this one. When Teddy shoots at a tree trunk, a bear jumps up and surprises Teddy. The action can be reversed so that a bear first pops out of the trunk and surprises Teddy into shooting unexpectedly.

The So-called memorial banks, which were manufactured prior to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1875, particularly the "Liberty Bell" and "Independence Hall" (semi-mechanical), became popular at that time.

Probably because the banks were made for children, the least-used subject in bank design was that of satire. However, during the Spanish-American War, the "United States Cannon Bank," with a little cannon that fired real caps at a Spanish ship, was manufactured. By the time the war ended, the bank disappeared from the market.

Between 1873 and 1975, a satirical bit crept into the design of the "Tammany Bank," which depicted the notorious "Boss Tweedy."

The "Smyth X-ray Bank" shows that the designers kept abreast of inventions to intrigue the scientific-minded youngsters. By inserting a coin into this bank, a child could see bones in his hand.

Even Gambling Banks
Although gambling was considered a vice in the Victorian days, the feeling was not so strong that it could prevent the manufacture of the "Guessing Bank," patented on May 22, 1877. Several persons could play at this savings-bank game. One player selected a number, shown on the dial in the center of the bank. He then dropped a coin into the hat of the miniature man sitting astride a chair, causing the needle of the dial to revolve. If it stopped at the selected number, a locked drawer in the back of the bank opened and the player was allowed to withdraw five times the amount of money he deposited.

The term, "mechanical penny bank," frequently used today, does not apply to all of the mechanical banks. Many of the cast-iron banks were designed to receive more than one type of coin and, in many instances, the weight of the various coins often determined the performance of the bank’s little figures. In "French’s Automatic Toy Bank," a figure of a little boy revolves one time when a penny is inserted, twice for a nickel, three times for a quarter and six times for a half dollar. The front of this bank bears the words, "The more money the boy got the more he did to earn it" — a little maxim to help the youngster’s character.

So many designs were used in making the banks fascinating to the children that it is believed no other single toy has ever been manufactured in such great variety.

Mechanical coin banks were not invented because the practice of saving was a new hobby or necessity. We can be quite certain that early man hoarded various articles that were of worth to him. Later when he began to use coins in barter, he surely realized the need for a container in which to hide them.

Surprisingly, the first mechanical bank, which dates back to the Chinese Han dynasty around 206 B.C. - 220 A.D., was used as an alms box. When a patron dropped a coin into the glazed-green pottery box, a little bear on top of the bank wiggled in appreciation. The ancient bank is now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

The first banks in America were made from gourds, shells and clay, or whittled out wood. Benjamin Franklin’s maxims on saving, which he published in his "Poor Richard’s Almanac," encouraged saving money and certainly helped promote interest in savings banks.

Interest in saving was further promoted through the minting of the new, large copper pennies back in 1873, and glass containers for honey and mustard were designed to be used as banks after products were consumed.

Further interest was instilled through the chartering of the first bank in 1816, and the bank strife during Andrew Jackson'’ Administration. Around this period, the first banks in tin, held together by solder, were made and bore savings mottoes, such as "Time is money."

The popular savings activities prompted the foreigners to call Americans the Yankee "pinch-penny." Never before did a nation prosper so well that its children had money to save.

Enterprising American toy makers quickly grasped upon the idea for creating banks that entertained the youngsters as well as provided a receptacle in which to keep their money.

The first patent on a mechanical bank was issued on February 16, 1869 to James Serril of Philadelphia for his "Magic Savings Bank." A coin placed in a drawer of this bank disappeared into a box below when it was closed.

However, the first patent on a cast-iron mechanical bank was issued a few months later on December 21, 1869, to John Hall of Watertown, Massachusetts, for his bank, the "Excelsior." A monkey behind a desk in this bank disappeared when a coin was inserted into a slot.

Two patents were required to protect the pattern of the mechanical bank — one for the mechanism, a work of art in itself, was good for 17 years, and another for the design expired after three and one-half years. (Later, one patent covered both the mechanism and the design.)

Because of the nature of casting iron, designs were not too ornate. But the workmanship applied to the mechanical coin banks was a true Yankee skill and should not be overlooked in the history of American craftsmanship.

The actual iron casting was done in the foundry by experienced molders who worked 11-hour days. The cost to the manufacturer, from the patterns to the finished product, amounted to a great deal of money; therefore, he had to realize a profit of 10 cents on each bank he sold in order to make his business profitable.

Few mechanical banks were made before 1875, and those were not referred to as mechanical banks by such simple names as "Toy Safe," "Toy Money Box," etc. The demand for the banks rose sharply after 1875 and by 1906, business was really booming. The mechanical-bank craze caught on in Europe, but even Germany, the seat of the toy industry, could not compete with the true American product, the mechanical coin bank.

The manufacture of mechanical coin banks continued until a shortage of iron ore compelled the manufacturers to switch to the making of toy cap pistols, in 1926.

During the last 15 years, many grownups, as fascinated by the mechanical banks as the children who once played with then, have joined the ranks of collectors, and each year many of them attend the Mechanical Coin Bank Collectors of America Convention that is held in a major city of the United States.

The bank collectors, like collectors of various other items, browse through attics, barns, storage places, or attend country auctions and visit antique shops in order to find the old animated toys.

Oddly, some types of banks that were manufactured in the greatest numbers happen to be the rarest today, and some banks made only 40 years ago are more rare than those twice as old. But it must be remembered that the banks were basically toys and, as such, were oftentimes broken and destroyed.

Rare banks command astonishingly high prices. The rarest, the "Ferris Wheel," "Harlequin, Clown and Columbine," and "Freedman’s" banks are worth more than $3,000. The "Merry-go-round" is valued at $1,850; "Red Riding Hood," $1,000; and the "Katzenjammer Kids," $400. The lowest priced mechanical banks may be bought for about $35.

A novice collector may find the cast-iron, still banks (non-mechanical) of interest; these sell for as little as five dollars.

In addition to the banks, collectors are interested in the patent papers and the illustrated pages from the old catalogs. Original patterns and models of the banks are also prized items among the collectors.

Many patterns and models of the banks are carefully preserved in the J. & E. Stevens Company (still in operation) in Cromwell, Connecticut. On display are also containers of dry pigment, used to brighten the paints that decorated the banks; the wooden packing boxes that were never filled; and many other mementos reminiscent of the booming, mechanical coin bank manufacturing days. A visit to the Stevens’ factory is a visit into the past.

If any of you readers have a mechanical coin bank, why not display it in your living room for all to see. Not only will it give you a daily glimpse into a past era, but it will also serve as a conversation piece.


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