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National Antiques Review, January, 1971

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.

71-01_Whiting.gif (5181 bytes)The Stevens plant is no longer active in the manufacture of anything, but some of the buildings are still there, and here and there can be seen a reminder that this was the Stevens Plant, which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 painted.

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.


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