Sater's ANTIQUES NEWS —
March 18, 1977
Historical & Comic
(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
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
Some of the banks dating from 1900 to 1908 include:
Katzenjammer Kids, Indian Welcoming Columbus, William Tell
and the rarest of all penny banks,
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
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
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
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
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
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".