National Antiques Review, January, 1971
MONEY in the BANKS
by Hubert B. Whiting
One of the questions most often asked about Mechanical Banks is,
"Where were they made?" The answer to this is very simple. The great majority of
them were made in New England, particularly in Connecticut, and more particularly at the
J. & E. Stevens Co. in Cromwell, Conn.
The Stevens plant is no
longer active in the manufacture of anything, but some of the buildings are still there,
and here and there can be seen a reminder that this was the Stevens Plant, which played
such an important part in the manufacture of Mechanical Banks and Toys. More than 35 per
cent of all the known American-made mechanical banks were made at this plant. The plant
itself is located off the main highway, down a hill into a peaceful valley called Frog
Hollow - perhaps because of the pond located in the vicinity that had many, many frogs
croaking at once, as if to form a chorus of sorts to break the stillness of the Hollow.
Stevens made many banks with a frog motif, ond one would surmise that the frogs in Frog
Hollow were the inspiration to the designer.
The writer visited the Stevens Plant in 1953 and took the picture of the plant, which
shows the sign on the building adjacent to the little office, kept bright even then, long
after the activity at the plant had ceased, by repeated paintings. An almost invisible
sign in the peak of the building on the right reads "Iron Toys". This being high
up in the peak near the roof, it was probably too difficult to reach to keep it well
While at the plant, and during several visits later, I was privileged to have been allowed
to wander through the various buildings, always on the lookout for some treasure left
behind. In one shed, I could have gathered up a barrel-full of small toy shovels,
hatchets, jack stones, etc., but the same treasure hunt by collectors active long before
my collecting days had gleaned any worthwhile memorabilia.
The company was originally established in 1843 by two brothers, John and Elisha Stevens.
It was not founded as a toy business but as a company to make various hardware items. The
toys and banks came later - 1869 to 1928. Stevens, of course, made banks, but it was
designers like Hall and Charles Bailey who provided the ingenuity, imagination, and
craftsmanship to supply Stevens with the patterns and models to make banks.
Bailey was undoubtedly the most prominent of the designers. His first bank patent was
issued in 1879, and this was for a non-mechanical bank called the Watch Bank.
From then on, many a design poured forth from his prolific and innovative mind. Some of
the more commonly known Bailey-designed and Stevens-manufactured banks are the World's
Fair Bank, Chief Big Moon, Teddy and the Bear, Boy Scout Bank, Dentist, Milking Cow, and
Jonah and the Whale on a Pedestal.
As stated above, Charles Bailey designed the Chief Big Moon Bank, This bank
represents a choice bit of early Americana. Chief Big Moon sits, stoical and patient, at
the entrance to his tepee. He's cooking a freshly caught fish over a bed of coals on the
shore of a quiet and peaceful pond, without a doubt the pond in Frog Hollow. There are two
ducks swimming on the pond. The application of a penny - an Indian Head Penny, by all
means - will cause a frog to leap from under a lily pad in an effort to steal the fish.
But the alert and quick Indian pulls the fish away. (The early designers took many
liberties with proportions. The frog is bigger than the Indian and could swallow the two
ducks with one flick of his tongue.) The signs or hieroglyphics along the base of the bank
are undoubtedly symbols of the early American Indian and when translated say "A penny
saved is a penny earned".
Another bank made by Stevens, designed by Bailey, and having an Indian motif, is the World's
fair Bank. This bank commemorates an exhibition in honor of Columbus at the World's
Fair Exposition in Chicago. The bank shows Columbus sitting on a tree stump, with the
fallen log stretched out in front of him. With the insertion of a penny, the top of the
log springs up, revealing the rising figure of an Indian. Columbus raises his right arm as
the Indian offers a peace pipe. Along the base of the bank on one side is a nicely
designed and embossed relief of an Indian on horseback running down a buffalo, as they
must have done years ago on the western prairies. On the other side, there is much design
of flowers, vines and leaves surrounding a center medallion having an embossed Santa
Maria, Columbus's ship when he discovered America in 1492. Bailey designed and Stevens
manufactured three mechanical banks with an Indian prominent in the action. They were the
above described Chief Big Moon, and the World's Fair Bank. Also, the Indian
Shooting the Bear was a Bailey-designed bank, accounting for the three.