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RELICS Magazine, date unknown


By Douglas M. Fellows.

Mark Haber, Yankee Banks, Relics, PhotoYou might guess that Ben Franklin, after sitting up late one night to write "A penny saved is a penny earned," sharpened his quill and designed the first mechanical bank. Or you might suppose that Carrie Nation accomplished the trick between swings of the axe. Anyone who ever heard ballads like "Father, dear father, come home to me now" would be certain that Carrie would devise some means of keeping Junior’s little hoard safe from father when he got the urge for the demon rum.

If there were no way to get information about the inventor, your guess would be as good as any other, and as a matter of fact the experts are in doubt themselves. It may have been that the same practical joker who produced the firecracker, devised the first mechanical bank, for reposing in the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts is a porcelain bank you’ll be able to find only when you have three guide books, a battery of attendants and perhaps the curator.

Anyway, the description says that this bank was made during one of those Chinese dynasties (it doesn’t matter which one) which were old and crumbling long before Nero got out of knee pants. It must have been a joker who perfected this delicate repository, as anyone will admit who ever dropped the family’s prize tea cup. But it was mechanical. The bear which graced the cover moved whenever tickled by a piece of cash.

But mechanical banks, as we know them, were a Yankee invention. Made for the most part of cast iron, they reached a high degree of perfection and were a popular Christmas or birthday present for more than half a century.

As near as the experts can figure it, John Hall, a native of New Hampshire, dropped into the J. & E. Stevens Company of Cromwell one day in 1876 with a mechanical bank pattern he wanted them to manufacture. Naturally it took some time to carve a pattern in wood, secure the patent and make the initial steps, but when the first bank was finished, everyone knew it would be a success.

It was a simple mechanism, merely a latch string hung from the door of the toy house. When the string was pulled the chimney cover popped open and a wooden image of a man jumped up. The banks sold by the thousands and before long the Stevens Company itself was designing new banks.

As with anything which meets popular approval, competition soon developed, and the variety of banks which soon flooded the market seemed numberless. As a matter of fact only about 230 varieties ever reached the market, and there are no known existing models of some of them. But the 200 or more that can be collected offer a fine hobby for the person interested in Americana.

Some of the mechanical features of these banks are amazing. A wide variety of shooting banks started with the Creedmore bank. This portrays a soldier who shoots a coin into a tree trunk. The gun is operated by a tension spring and the air is accurate. Later models using the same idea portray William Tell, Teddy Roosevelt and an Indian shooting a bear. Each model used the same mechanism but substituted a figure popular to the period.

Another set which offers possibilities is the carnival series. One of these shows a dog jumping through a hoop held by a clown. Another has a clown who rides in a cart pulled by a prancing pony. To operate this one, a coin is placed on a post and the crank turned. When the clown and prancing pony reach the post, the clown raises his hand and pushes the coin through a slot where it drops into the bank. Among others which caused the circus motif were the merry-go-round, Harlequin and Columbine, Punch and Judy theatre, clown astride a ball, and dog jumping through a hoop.

Humorous subjects were very popular. Mark Haber, one of Hartford’s two outstanding collectors, enjoys his rare bank which shows a pig in a high chair. It is one of the few toy banks to be nickel-plated. Most of them were hand colored and Mr. Haber says the women who did this work were paid a cent for each bank they did.

Madame Katzenjammer holding Hans and Fritz makes another humorous subject. The only mechanical movement is in Mrs. K’s. eyes, which roll when a coin is inserted at the top of her head. Another subject, Bill E. Grinn, rolls his eyes and sticks his tongue out, the tongue extending further when a large coin is deposited.

Some rare banks are valuable only from a collector’s standpoint. These banks are often not entertaining nor excellent from a mechanical standpoint. No one seems to know why some more elaborate models are rare, but collectors believe it is because the model either wasn’t popular at the time or cost too much to make. Madame Katzenjammer, for instance, although of late manufacture is very rare, while the Hall bank is easily found in good condition.

Another rare bank of which Mr. Haber has a perfect specimen depicts a girl skipping rope. This model is easily the outstanding mechanical bank. It is delicately cast and perfectly made. A product of the J. & E. Stevens Company, it probably sold for about $3.50, a good price in those days. This bank operates by a spring mechanism. When wound, a coin is placed in a slot and the lever sprung. The girl then begins to skip rope. The figure is so arranged that she will jump off the ground each time the rope passes under her feet; at the same time she turns her head from side to side.

William G. Downes, a well known Hartford dentist is the other local collector. He keeps an unusual display in his office. Perhaps his favorite is the dentist bank. Here a darky is in the chair, the dentist’s knee pressed against his lap, ready to extract a tooth. The coin is put in the dentist’s pocket, and a lever released which throws both doctor and patient over backwards. The change of position tosses the coin from the doctor’s pocket into the bank.

Another rare bank in Dr. Downe’s collection portrays Uncle Remus stealing chickens. When the coin is placed in the slot, the bank is open, portraying Uncle Remus in the open chicken coop door, a fowl in his hand, while the cop stands at the side of the coop, well out of sight. When released, Remus steps back, the door slams and the officer whirls around to the front of the coop. Naturally the coin is also secured.

There is a wide variety of these banks which caricature the Negro — the Jolly Nigger Band, the Darktown Battery and I Always Did ’Spise a Mule being among the most popular. The battery subject gives a great deal of action. Here the pitcher throws a penny across the bank. The batter turns his head and swings, missing the penny. The catcher moves his head forward, misses, and the coin falls into a slot in the catcher’s body.

Another bank that is still a lot of fun shows a Negro mammy who feeds a child the penny, which has been placed on a spoon. The child swallows it, accompanying the action by kicking its legs and showing other signs of objection.

From a standpoint of rarity, possibly Mr. Haber’s Red Riding Hood bank is the most unusual in his collection. Only two are known to exist and this one is not complete because a mask on which the grandmother’s face is painted, has been broken off. The action was arranged so that when the lever was thrown forward to receive the coin, the mask was raised. This exposed the wolf’s face, frightening Red Riding Hood, who threw back her head in fright.

The trainer and bulldog and the man on the goat who feeds the bullfrog are excellent examples of castings made by the I. B. Company of Buffalo. Similarity of design shows them to be of common construction and the action in each is deliberate and effective. In the first, the coin is held by the trainer. When the lever is released, the bulldog jumps up, his mouth opens & grabs the penny. As he flies back, the swallowed coin drops into the bank. The second bank operates when the man and goat spring forward. The coin, held by the man, slips into the frog’s mouth, and the man and goat rebound, ready for another coin. Both banks are operated by spring action.

The football players’ bank is another bank with plenty of action. Insertion of a coin releases a spring and the players move forward in a rush, finally bumping their heads together. The stage is set for another rush by moving the players into the first position, which automatically cocks the mechanism.

Of all the banks, one of the most exciting from the standpoint of action is Professor Pugfrog’s Great Feat. In this bank the activity is caused by spring action again. When wound, a coin is set on the back of the bicycle and a lever released. The bicycle makes a complete revolution, throwing the coin into the bank at one end.

There are so many types that it would be impossible to describe them all, but it is possible to discuss the hobby without mentioning the satirical banks. Some poked fun at the Irish and others slurred politicians. The Tammany Bank, also in another phase called the Boss Tweed Bank, was the most common.

Although several iron foundries shared in the manufacture and design of these banks, only the J. & E. Stevens Company is now in existence. Perhaps this is because they also produced other types of iron toys, cap pistols being the most outstanding feature. As a matter of fact, they incorporated the cap pistol idea into the banks, the Teddy Roosevelt bank for instance, being so equipped. Although there was plenty of action in the bank itself, a cap could be inserted in the gun for an even better effect.

The manufacture of these banks continued until the 1920’s when new toys and new ideas replaced them on the market. Sometimes a new model appears whose history has now been completely lost, and several common varieties are of unknown origin. Collectors are able to place some models through old catalogues (themselves a hobbyist’s item) and sometimes by similarity of design.

There’s a word of caution necessary for anyone who remembers seeing one of these old banks buried away in an attic. You may have a rare item and then again it may be just an interesting curiosity. After all, any antique is worth only what you can get for it and the people who save banks do it for the love of the hobby rather than in hopes of making money. Since this is true, you’d probably be more interested in washing the dust from the eyes of Professor Pugfrog and giving him a chance to live again on your mantle where your friends can enjoy his strange gyrations. Besides, he’ll teach you to save pennies just as well as he ever did.


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