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
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
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.