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Joel Sater's ANTIQUES NEWS    March 18, 1977 
Historical & Comic
Rare Penny Banks
(Editor's Note: "Popular Penny Banks", Part I, A/N February 4 discussed mechanical and stationary banks from the classic period, 1870 to 1910.)

by B. L. Coleman Part II
What makes a penny bank rare is a good question, and how much is it worth is a better one. As an art, the beauty is in the eye of the collector. The purest might exult over the Jonah or the Black Uncle Sam, while a more contemporary collector would consider his collection incomplete without the recently advertised Nixon and Agnew novelty. That one retails for $35 and I am not familiar with its action.

     Penny banks can have an historical relationship to past events both real and fictitious and they really belong to the museum class. What they might bring in price is anyone's guess, because they just do not come up for sale.
     Some of the banks dating from 1900 to 1908 include: The Katzenjammer Kids, Indian Welcoming Columbus, William Tell and the rarest of all penny banks, Lion Hunter. This one depicting Teddy Roosevelt, shooting a lion dating from 1908, is one of the super collectibles of all time. Other rare banks include a stationary entitled World's Fair from 1904 and Moody and Sankey. A very valuable bank is depicted in iron, celebrating Commander Shakleton's dash to the ice cap and is called North Pole Victory.


     There are also the Hope Diamond kinds of banks - those that are so rare no one has ever seen one in this century. Such a bank is Freedman's, made in Bridgeport Connecticut roughly about 1865 by Jerome B. Secor. It was a commercial lead balloon because it sold for five dollars, which was way overboard even for the whoopie spending days of the Reconstruction.
     Since they were made of wood, very few of these banks survived the anger of the merchants stuck with them. If that were not enough, the action was complex and run by a clockwork mechanism imported from Germany, which self-destructed before it left the factory. The action involved a "darkey" attired in an outlandish suit of several colors. When the coin was inserted into the platform and a button pushed, he raised his left hand and brushed in the coin, putting his right thumb to his nose in a less than gallant salute, and turned his head from side to side. There is a glazed blue paper label with Freedman's Bank in gold lettering on the base. Back in 1968 a collector in California was offering $5,000 for a perfect model. That should be worth a trip to the attic.


     As early as 1940 I recall seeing a penny bank in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, dating from Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.). It was a sad fragment of its former self, but the mechanism still worked, which makes it about the oldest penny bank in our time. The Chinese pottery alms box knew the secret prayers of millions of the faithful, but never made a sound, except the dropping of the coin; a two thousand year old monument to man's belief in a supreme being.

     Not nearly as impressive or as rare are the banks which are busts of well-known historical figures. Lincoln and Franklin are the most prevalent, and there is hardly a 40 or 50 year old kid who has not had one of these at some time.
     Lindy in cap and goggles, Blackjack Pershing, F.D.R. and recently J.F.K. have made it to the status of collector's items. They make lovely gifts, can be found at most antique shows and sell at low prices. The J.F.K. is usually five dollars, and the older ones may run a bit higher, but they are untapped goodies.


     Cartoon banks from the 30s, made of cheap tin are selling for inflated prices, but they are very popular.
     Most of them relate to comic book heroes or radio heroes or anti-heroes from the 30s. Captain Midnight, Porky Pig, Superman, and Betty Boop are available, along with the only group I have ever seen of this type - The Boy Allies kicking Uncle Adolf somewhere below the Rhine.
     The figures are two dimensional, of pressed double tin set on a tin base. The action is stiff, controlled by the weight of the coin and limited to an arm lifting (or in the case of the Boy Allies to a raised foot).
     What I recall most about these banks was the cut finger you could get from them when they fell apart after being kicked around the toy box. It should be noted that in the Boy Allies and others of the early WWII years, the motto on the base related to using the money for savings stamps or war bonds.
     So the simple penny bank, which may have started two thousand years ago as an offering to a Chinese Deity may have ended with a bust of J.F.K. less than a decade ago. The surreptitious weakness for childish amusements explains the attraction these thrift inducers have for the serious collector. Perhaps it says something about the generations who have used them, collected them and saved small fortunes in these banks. Maybe the motto on an ancient Persian alms bank summed it all up: "Allah has kissed your fingers".

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