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EARLY AMERICAN LIFE, February, 1975 - Pages 14 through 16

COLLECTING MECHANICAL BANKS
By John Mebane
 
     In his book, Old Mechanical Banks, published in 1940, Hayward Bellows commented that the more common toy mechanical banks sold in a price range of from $3 to $10. The author included "Speaking Dog," "William Tell," "Tammany," " 'Spise the Mule," and "Humpty Dumpty" in this category.
     It would be difficult to find a more pertinent commentary upon the popularity of collecting "antique" toy banks than to cite the current values of those banks listed above, which are, roughly, as follows:
     "Speaking Dog," $135; "William Tell," $187.50; "Tammany," $88.50; " 'Spise the Mule" (more often called "Always Did 'spise a Mule"), $98; and "Humpty Dumpty," $163.
     This may seem like a considerable price climb for toy banks to take in less than thirty-five years, but the values of the scarcer mechanical banks have risen even more dramatically. In the 1940 book, Bellows placed the value of a "Harlequin-Clown-Columbine" bank at between $30 and $75; today that bank will fetch nearly $4,000 on the collectors' market! The "Ferris Wheel" bank, classified in 1940 as worth more than $75 is now valued at nearly $2,500 and the "Football Player" bank worth $20 to $30 in 1940 now brings well over $1,000.
     These startling price escalations have been the rule rather than the exception, because the search for these coin-activated toys of the 19th century has become a frenetic one as has, in fact, the pursuit of all early cast iron toys. Collectors have banded together in a nationwide organization called Mechanical Bank Collectors of America.
     The production of small banks in which to save coins dates back several centuries. In parts of Europe small ceramic banks were commonplace in the 17th century, but pottery banks in the shape of vases or urns, usually decorated by painting, were utilized before the dawn of the Christian era. So were mechanical toys of other types, some of which have been found in the royal tombs of Egypt.
     Crude receptacles for the saving of coins were also used in the early days after the settlement of America by white men, but their commercial production stems from the early 19th century, being manufactured at first, according to Bellows, of tin. Banks of glass followed as did some of pottery and wood. The coin-activated cast iron bank now so avidly sought dates largely from the late 19th century.
     Most mechanical toys are fascinating, and the mechanical banks are foremost among these. They induced children to adopt practices of thrift, because the deposit of a coin in them rewarded the child with entertainment. There are two "Jonah and the Whale" mechanical banks. In one, the whale swallowed Jonah, feet first, when a coin was deposited. In the other, a woman fed the hapless Jonah to the whale. There were several variations of the "William Tell" bank, all with similar action: when a coin was deposited, Father Tell shot an apple off his son's head. In one version William Tell uses a gun; in another, a cross-bow.
     Other mechanical banks provide various types of action or entertainment: "Kicking Mule" banks kick coins into barns; "Dentist" banks feature a dentist reaching into the mouth of a patient and pulling out a tooth with forceps; "Tammany" banks, inspired by corrupt politics, feature a plump man pocketing a coin and bowing after it has been laid in his hand.
     The old mechanical banks mirror the American past. Some depict sports, circuses and carnivals, farm scenes, and even the likenesses of political figures and statesmen. The action of most such banks is amusing, reflecting our forebears' love of fun. Some mechanical action is simple, some quite complex. Several such banks were patented in the middle of the 19th century but the majority were made after 1875. They were produced by such well-known toymakers as Hubley Manufacturing Company, J.&E. Stevens, Kenton Hardware Company, and Enterprise Manufacturing Company.
     Very rare mechanical banks in addition to "Harlequin-Clown-Columbine," include "Giant," "Woodpecker," "Croquet Player," "Blacksmith," "Freedman," "Man in the Chair," "Ferris Wheel," "Bowling Alley," and several others that are now exceedingly difficult to find and quite costly when available.
     As could be expected, when the value of the old banks reached substantial levels, reproductions began to appear. For a while at least, these reproductions tended to depress some prices; values are now on the upswing again.
     In recent years an increasing number of collectors have turned to "still" banks that is, those that do not provide any action when a coin is deposited. This interest was spurred by the 1968 publication of Old Iron Still Banks, by Hubert B. Whiting, in which the author describes and illustrates in color scores of still banks made of iron. These took many intriguing shapes buildings, animals, the likenesses of presidents and other national leaders, monuments, mail boxes, the Liberty Bell, and the like.
     While the prices of these have by no means attained the levels of the more desirable mechanical banks, they have nevertheless been climbing rapidly within the past two or three years. Some are now valued at more than $100, and many will fall within the $50-$100 price range.
     In his book, Mr. Whiting assigned the banks described and illustrated a number, and dealers and collectors have widely adopted his numbering system when offering for sale or advertising for these institutions of thrift.
     Among the scarcer and the higher-priced still banks are those bearing such names as "Streetcar-Main Street," "Save and Smile Money Box," "Teddy Roosevelt," "Baseball Player," "Battleship Oregon," "Cat with Ball," "General Pershing" and "Ferry Boat." Favorite designs for iron still banks include bank buildings, lions, cats, dogs, deer, elephants, houses, and public buildings.
     In addition to the iron still banks, collectors are now turning to those made of tin, glass, ceramics, and other substances turned out in profusion since 1920.
     The collecting of the early banks, still and mechanical, has reached such proportions that one of the major price guides, The Antique Trader Price Guide to Antiques and Collectors' Items, published a "bonus section" about them in its summer, 1974, issue.
     Collecting these toys offers the individual several rewards: they are of small size and do not require spaces of museum proportions for display; they may still be utilized for their original purpose; they are entertaining and amusing; and they mirror segments of the American past.
     In addition to the two books mentioned, interested collectors may find more information about banks in John Meyer's Handbook of Old Mechanical Penny Banks; Louis H. Hertz's The Toy Collector and the same author's The Handbook of Old American Toys; a seven-section Mechanical Bank Book, by F. H. Griffith; and John Mebane's Treasure at Home.


 
 


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