Boy Robbing Bird’s Nest
by Sy Schreckinger – ANTIQUE TOY WORLD Magazine – June, 1991
Morality as defined by Webster, is "conformity
to ideals of the right human conduct." Illustrating this definition, and
created solely for the purpose of teaching youth that lesson, were a
unique group of mechanical banks. These emerged during the "golden age" of
production of mechanicals (i.e., 1880-1910), with the list including such
notables as "Peg Leg Beggar," "Boys Stealing Watermelons," "Uncle Remus,"
"Patronize the Blind Man and His Dog," and "Boy Robbing Bird's Nest"
Of these, none is as effective nor as dramatic in teaching the lesson
of morality as the latter. "Boy Robbing Bird's Nest" depicts a mischievous
lad, cautiously edging his way along the branch of a tree. His intent is
to appropriate three tiny birds' eggs lying within a lone nest while both
feathered parents frantically attempt to dissuade his rude invasion.
Suddenly, the branch breaks away from the trunk of the tree, thrusting the
boy who clings to it onto the ground. The moral ... Punishment will be
dealt swiftly to those who attempt to steal another's possessions.
One of the most beautifully cast, decorated, and executed of all
mechanical banks, "Boy Robbing Bird's Nest" was a product of the vivid and
fertile imagination of the most renowned bank designer of that era,
Charles A. Bailey. It bears his unmistakable trademark: prolific usage of
graceful floral and leaf motifs. Bailey's fascination with translating the
soft, flowing lines of nature into hard, cold, cast iron was an
achievement which remains unsurpassed to this date.
Unfortunately, patent papers for this exquisite mechanical have never
been located, leading one to hypothesize that the bank had never been
patented. Nevertheless, several sketches and correspondence addressed to
the J. and E. Stevens Company validate the "Boy Robbing Bird's Nest" bank
as Mr. Bailey's creation.
The J. and E. Stevens Company, of Cromwell, Connecticut, manufactured
the bank around the turn of the century. Figure II is a page from their
1906 toy catalog, offering the "Tree Bank" at "$1.00 apiece. Each in a
neat wooden box." A bargain indeed, when it is compared to the $18,700
price a mint example fetched at a recent Christie's auction sale.
The action of "Boy Robbing Bird's Nest" is precise, dramatic and
quite relevant to the morality lesson, as previously described. For the
price of a penny, the morality playlet that ensues is guaranteed to
delight, teach, and amuse the beholder. To quote from the ad in Figure II:
"Raise the limb of the tree to position, place a coin in the slot and
press the lever. As the boy falls the coin disappears into the tree."
Deposits are retrieved by removing the patented, round, Stevens coin
retainer beneath the base.
There are neither casting nor color variations of the "Boy Robbing
Bird's Nest" bank. The colors of the one pictured in Figure I are as
follows: the tree is painted light brown with silvery-green vines
interspersed with bright red berries running up the side of its trunk. The
cut sections at the top of the tree are yellow-ochre, highlighted with
light brown swirls. The base is painted bright green with gold highlights,
and the two flowers at the roots of the tree have orange petals with white
centers. The boy's hat is painted indigo. The pair of birds have bright
yellow feathers highlighted with brown. Their beaks and eyes are also
painted brown. The boy's face and hands are a pink, flesh color and he
wears an orange shirt with brown suspenders and blue pants. His hair,
shoes, eyes, and eyebrows are brown, and he has a small, red mouth. The
nest is dark green, surrounded by silvery-green leaves. The three tiny
eggs in the nest are painted white.
The combination of attractive appearance, action, and scarcity had
encouraged the reproduction of "Boy Robbing Bird's Nest" as far back as
the 1950s. Many were recast from actual factory patterns, making detection
that much more difficult. More recently, reproductions were cast using
original banks as patterns. These lack the fine details of the originals,
and exhibit a fairly pebbly, crude appearance. They also are smaller in
size than the original bank due to shrinkage of the molten iron as it
cooled in the mold.
Figure III is a base diagram of an original "Boy Robbing Bird's
Nest." Most reproductions will appear approximately one-eighth inch
shorter along the base than indicated.