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A Penny Saved

By Russell Shaw, Delta Airlines SKY In-flight Magazine, October, 1985

Remember back to your childhood, when your parents insisted the day’s proceeds from the lemonade stand go directly into the piggy bank? Maybe you could have used some of the change for admission to the Saturday-afternoon Randolph Scott western at the downtown cinema, but your money was carefully ensconced in ol’ Porky, to come out when you became a grownup of 18, ready for college.

Now, banks are not only likely to be an accepted fact of life, but play a central role in it. The driving force that just made you buy a certificate of deposit rather than spend equivalent funds on innocent whimsy might well have been born out of the wise fiduciary discipline your old piggy bank forced upon you in childhood.

But piggy banks are just a part of the story. For several decades in the 1800s and early 1900s, miniature depositories were teachers of fiscal responsibility, as well as art forms in their own right. And some of them would not be content to be mere passive holding pens for pitched pence – but actually reached out and grabbed the money from you.

Back then, there were two main kinds of toy banks – still and mechanical. The difference is self-explanatory: still banks just sat there, while mechanical banks moved. The latter breed, most often made of cast iron, first came on the scene in the late 1860s, when armament-making Civil War foundries (idled by the cessation of hostilities) turned to the far more innocent vocation of toy production to take advantage of their large iron inventories.

The first cast-iron mechanical bank was made in 1869 by Watertown, Massachusetts resident John Hall. Christened the Hall’s Excelsior Bank, it was set into motion by a tug on a small glass knob on the front door of a small house. Immediately popular, the rendering was produced by the J. & E. Stevens Company of Cromwell, Connecticut – a foundry not only experienced in war materials, but toys as well.

"A mechanical bank is a bank that has action, and does something," says Rick Mihlheim, secretary of the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America in Allegan, Michigan. "They were started to attract children’s attention and, in doing so, contribute to the idea of thrift."

With these ambitious goals in mind, manufacturers would exercise both technical and lighthearted inventiveness. "When the bank was activated by depositing a penny or pressing a lever, the child would be rewarded with an amusing action or series of actions," reports Janet Swartzlander, writing in a pamphlet detailing the traveling exhibition of mechanical banks offered by the Goldome Bank of Buffalo, New York.

"The banks are essentially American toys," she continues, "displaying the nineteenth-century American fondness for humorous caricatures of contemporary figures and references to current events. Manufacturers competed to see how complex they could make their banks’ operation: a dog would jump through a hoop and deposit a coin in a barrel, or a mother eagle would feed a coin to her eaglets."

Surely, children of that era must have been agape with wonder over such devices. "There was no creativity and variety spared to attract a child," says Mihlheim, who estimates that more than 300 authentic mechanical bank designs were fashioned during the period from 1869 to the 1920s.

Even for that time, however, the technology was relatively simple. "Basically, the motive power was springs," Mihlheim says. "The manufacturers had ingenious ways of making those things work by levers and a particular combination of casting inside the banks."

Those yearning for a view of vintage mechanical banks need look no further than the more than 75 pieces currently in the Goldome Collection. The stewardship of Goldome should be no surprise, for in the world of real-life mutual savings banks, they are the nation’s largest. Its president, Ross Kenzie, is an avid collector.

Goldome Collection curator Swartzlander, a financial-planning counselor for the institution, has several personal preferences in the myraid assortment. "The ‘Uncle Sam’ bank is one of my personal favorites," she says. "It is of particular interest to me because that particular bank was made in Buffalo." The device depicts a tall, stately Uncle Sam, clad in top hat and derby coat, dropping a coin into a brown satchel marked "U.S." It was patented in 1886 by C. G. Sheppard.

The other Swartzlander favorites are "Jonah And the Whale" and "Tammany." In a truly animated depiction, the 1890-vintage Jonah bank depicts the Biblical character tossing a coin into the whale’s mouth. Swartzlander believes this item to be part of the Goldome Collection’s initial 1982 group, obtained when the thrift merged with the New York Bank for Savings.

New York City’s Tammany Hall political machine of the mid-1800s comes under John Hall’s satirical wit in an 1873 work, which shows legendary political figure "Boss" Tweed increasing his own net worth. Clad in a smoking jacket and sitting on a regal red chair, Tweed sneeringly inserts a coin into his vest pocket.

In the annals of mechanical-bank collecting, other works are revered not only for their subject, but also for the inventor who devised them. The Mechanical Bank Collectors’ Mihlheim considers Charles Bailey and James Bowen as the two most famous designers in the field. Both are represented in the Goldome Collection.

It’s hard to choose a "best of class" from the seven Bowens in Goldome. Animals were a favorite theme. In the 1882 "Two Frogs Bank," a baby frog flips a coin into a large frog’s mouth, while in "Paddy and the Pig," made that same year, a mechanical pig, on the lap of his owner Paddy, kicks a coin from his owner Paddy, kicks a coin from his upward-pointing snout into Paddy’s mouth.

Bailey’s work also employed the animal-personification theme. In "Hen and Chicks," vintage 1901, a small, plaintive-looking chick emerges to take the money when a coin is inserted. Six years later, "Teddy and the Bear" combined both nature and patriotism. The bank showed President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter, firing a coin into a tree trunk and a bear’s head appearing at the top of the tree.

The Goldome Collection, which has been assessed at a total of $60,000, is currently on the road. This month, it can be seen at the Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn, New York Public Library. In November, it moves to St. Petersburg, Florida. In December, it shifts to Sarasota, and in January to Ft. Meyers.

Still-bank collections have been revered as well. This style dates back to at least 1793, when the first still bank appeared in America, at the same time as the first big copper pennies.

"These early banks were made of pottery, glass, or wood," wrote Muriel Anderson in a 1956 article reprinted in the April 1985 issue of The Mechanical Banker, house organ of the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America. "They were ‘still’ banks, not mechanical ones. Many times they came filled with honey or tea, and the children had to wait until the containers were empty to use them. Sometimes the banks had to be broken to receive the money."

Perhaps the most representative assortments on comparatively recent public view were shown in a 1983 exhibition at New York City’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum, which is the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Design.

The presentation, titled "A Penny Saved: Architecture in Cast Iron Toy Banks," showed 90 still banks and eight mechanical ones. Still banks on display depicted edifices as varied as churches, railroad stations, medieval castles, early 20th-Century skyscrapers, houses – and, yes – banks, which frequently commissioned their logos on these works as promotional tools. "The abundance of designs on view is amazing as a document both of the variety of such toys produced and of the parade of architectural fashions in the period," wrote Rita Reif, antiques columnist with the New York Times.

Thirty-five of the banks at this exhibition were and are the property of Winter Park, Florida architect Don Duer, who is also a director of the Still Bank Collectors Club of America.

As in other branches of collectibles, one might expect a keen rivalry between the still- and mechanical-bank aficionado. In Duer’s example, through, that doesn’t seem true. Most of his collection is of the still variety, but he holds a keen interest in both.

"The charm of a mechanical bank is in the intrigue of watching a coin move or fall into a slot with interesting characterizations." He says. "Still banks, on the other hand, are the purest form of collecting money, and like mechanicals, they take on all different kinds of characteristics. They come in a variety of figures, such as animals, transportation, ships, and safes. My favorite is the architectural bank."

Some mechanical-bank manufacturers, such as the J. & E. Stevens Company, were also active in the still-bank mode, but this field was populated with at least 30 specialists. Two of the best known were Kaiser & Rex and the Mudd Manufacturing Co.

Still banks differed in material composition as well as modus operandi from their cast-iron mechanical cousins. "Most stills," says Duer, "Were made of either wood, ceramic, glass or tin, while the latest ones were made of a light metal." Still banks also had a longer life span than mechanicals, their manufacture disappearing around 1930, or about ten years later than the mechanicals.

Given the timeless popularity of samplings such as the mechanical-bank Goldome Collection, and the still-bank Cooper-Hewitt exhibition, why did the manufacture of these items virtually cease approximately 60 years ago? Very possibly for a mixture of financial and social reasons.

"To a large extent, as time went on, thrift did not become such a big deal." Claims Mihlheim. "Kids got away from thrift, moved on to other interests, so these banks didn’t mean as much to them.

"Plus," he says, "materials and labor got more expensive. To build one of those cast-iron banks today would cost a fortune. Some of those old banks that are selling for $500 and $600 today were originally produced for 2$ or $3 a dozen."

Generations later, some of those historical and architectural mementos can command hefty prices. Here, a true caste system prevails. The rarest still banks can cost at least $3,000, but the truly distinguished mechanicals are worth many times that.

Mihlheim cites "The Freedman Bank," made by Jerome Secore of Bridgeport, Connecticut, as one of the rarest mechanical banks. A wooden, windup type, it had a teller drop a coin into a slot. "Only three or four were ever made, and I think only one is left in its original state," Mihlheim says. He estimates the Freedman’s worth at between $75,000 and $100,000.

Would-be collectors, of course, do not have to sell their homes to find good toy-bank bargains. It all depends on one’s parameters and priorities.

"I’m sure that thousands of banks survive today, considering that people might have a mechanical bank or two from their childhood – which may have belonged to their parents or grandparents," Mihlheim says. "But to actually start as a collector, it is a little difficult right now because the market prices are high."

To aid the search, both the mechanical- and still-bank clubs publish items for sale in their club newsletters and publications. "But there are many places you can look," says Duer. "you can buy the banks either from flea markets, another collector, estate sales – any place you can find them.

For her more specialized needs, Goldome’s Swartzlander took unorthodox measures. "It’s kind of a long, involved process," she explains. "You locate collectors and/or dealers, advertise in antique magazines, go out weekends, and start networking."

"It’s best to educate yourself before spending your money," Mihlheim counsels. "Look at the bank very carefully for a smooth rather than grainy finish. A repainted bank doesn’t hold its value."

In light of the cessation of large-scale, toy-bank manufacturing activity, we may be looking at a vanishing breed – for the mechanical and still banks of yore are aging gracefully, without replenishing of stock. But not if Charlie Reynolds of Falls Church, Virginia has any say about it.

"There are some reproductions being done, but I am one of the very few left who makes entirely new mechanical and still banks," he says. "For most people, they are so expensive to produce – to get a pattern-maker to make a pattern, to match plates, and cast.

"There’s just too much money involved," Reynolds maintains, "so I do everything, from beginning design and applying the finish to painting and mailing it."

Skilled in both genres, Reynolds estimates that he has created about 48 mechanical and 25 still banks, most of them in editions of between 25 and 50.

One of his more noted mechanical-bank devices was what might be called a still-mechanical fusion, created for the 25th anniversary of the Mechanical Bank Collectors Club."This mechanical bank"," Reynolds says, "would actually melt metal." It contained a little furnace, and, via a bismuth alloy, it would turn a three-piece mold into a small elephant still bank.

Clearly, there are quicker, more convenient ways of saving money. The romance of toy-bank collecting, then, has to be quite removed from the desire to accumulate pennies.

"The beauty of collecting both still and mechanical banks," says Duer, "is you have a piece of real, authentic Americana whose value is increasing. Plus, at usually no bigger than six by eight inches, they are easy to store and show. You can gather 100 or 200 of them and not fill up a lot of space."

 

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