THE NATIONAL OBSERVER,
Week Ending December 16, 1972
Flip! Flop! And It's in the Bank
Acquisitive Urge Makes
Toys More Valuable Than Contents
By Haskel Frankel, From Washington, D.C.
If an outsider could have eluded the
security guard and entered the basement meeting room at the Key Bridge
Marriott Motel on a recent Friday night here, he'd have seen what, at first
glance, seemed a standard convention, properly dressed men and women, each
with the usual name tag. But what they said wouldn't have made much sense.
"Well, what's new since last year?" one man asked
another. "Bad accident," was the happy answer. "That's good news," said the
first. "I've been hoping for one."
Both men were of sound mind. They were members of the Mechanical Bank
Collectors of America (MBCA) attending their 15th annual convention — and
"Bad Accident" is a mechanical bank, the passion of the 100-plus men and
women who came from all over the country (and even England) to meet others
who share their mania. To quote F. H. Griffith, whose rating book
Mechanical Banks is the collectors bible, a mechanical bank is "a bank
that has been produced commercially and sold direct, or otherwise, to stores
or other outlets and in turn sold to the general public for the use of
children as a toy savings device."
That makes a mechanical bank sound like any other — except that they
aren't. Mechanical banks move; they do something for the penny they receive.
Take, for example, "Bad Accident." It is made of cast-iron, as were most of
the antique mechanical banks most prized by collectors, and shows a black
man seated in a two-wheel cart behind a mule. A penny is placed between his
feet; when a lever is pushed, a small boy dashes out from behind a bush,
frightening the mule. The mule rears up, tipping the cart and man over
backwards, and the penny slips behind the man's feet and into the bank, the
base of the cart.
Most antique mechanical banks were
manufactured the last 30 years of the Nineteenth Century. They are richly
detailed, elaborately made, far different from today's stamped-out toys. In
their time, they were inexpensive. An advertisement of its day lists "Paddy
and The Pig" bank for $1. At the auction that was the climax of the
Friday-night session of the MBCA, an imperfect specimen of the bank was sold
Mechanical banks celebrate Biblical happenings (Jonah and the Whale),
historic events (Teddy Roosevelt shooting a bear, Boss Tweed taking graft),
attitudes of the times (Bigotry runs rampant, with cast-iron slurs at
Negroes, Jews, Irish, Italians, and Chinese.)
What is the fascination of mechanical banks? The answers from those of
the two-day convention were almost as numerous as their banks. "They're like
antiques." "They're Americana." "Maybe it's a release from crap, a throwback
to an era that was ingenuous, a time when people took a bit of care." And as
one collector put it: "Let's face it. Whatever else they are one hell of a
The little one-buck toys sure are. In 1969 the MBCA sent out an
estimated price evaluation of mechanical banks, with each bank evaluated by
three different collectors. One-year later the club announced that its list
was no longer valid and suggested its members add 75 per cent to a bank
costing under $100, 40 per cent to a bank between $100 and $300. From $500
on, "any price which is acceptable to the purchaser is deemed fair."
"I just don't know," Mrs. Long said to a friend (collectors are most
reluctant to have their names and addresses in print, fearing they are
openly inviting robbery), "we were collecting 'way back before these things
took on such great value. I tell you we enjoyed them a lot more then. Now I
don't even dare dust them."
"Isn't it terrible?" Mrs. Arizona said, referring to the Kentucky's,
who attended Derby Day and came home to find their whole collection stolen.
"I have my banks under glass and everything bugged."
It's a plus when a bank works, but it
is not strictly necessary, as many serious collectors don't like to operate
their banks for fear of breakage or the loss of another fleck of original
paint. Prices rise and fall on such things.
At the Friday-night auction, to which collectors brought banks, they
were willing to sell on the block, few rare specimens showed up (though one,
a football bank brought over by a British dealer-member, sold for
approximately $1,600), but the club estimated the evening's sale amounted to
The Mechanical Bank Collectors of America was born in 1958 when a group
of eight Rhode Island collectors sent a letter to other collectors beginning
"The members of the Antique Bank Collectors of Rhode Island have had such
friendly and enthusiastic meetings in connection with our mutual hobby over
the period of the past two years since our club was founded that we would
like to share. . . ." Each year since then, in convention assembled, members
listen raptly as a collector speaks of the banks he found on a trip to
Germany, glean or disseminate information on insurance, exchange tips on the
care of their treasures.
Friendly? Well, yes — but only on the surface. Everyone is outgoing,
chatty at club gatherings. But eyes glint when the lady with a tan leather
purse on her wrist finally opens the catch and
takes out a small tissue-wrapped package. It is the rare "Red Riding Hood"
bank. The little girl sits on Grandma's cast-iron quilted bed; a penny lifts
granny's mask from her face to reveal the wolf behind it. "Can I touch it?"
an elderly lady asks in a whisper. She gets permission and puts out one
finger. No one else in the circle seems to breathe.
The new collectors, the small collectors, are decidedly friendly, as
are those for whom mechanical banks are still a hobby. But everyone knows
who the big collectors are, the millionaires in the crowd for whom mania has
taken over. They move through the gatherings like benevolent sharks, smiling
and a bit sleepy-eyed. They disappear for meetings in one another's rooms,
and rumors drift back of swaps, and of who bested whom — or tried to — in
which deal. But if any bank changed hands, no one really knows.
Summing it all up, an officer of the MBCA says: "Mechanical banks are
Americana, and banks are money and that's Americana too. And the whole
things brings out the worst in all of us."
Another member chimes in. "I don't know who said it, but the only
difference between men and boys is the cost of their toys."