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The Freedman’s Bureau Bank
by Sy Schreckinger – ANTIQUE TOY WORLD Magazine – June, 1997

     Chaos, Destruction, and havoc were the ultimate consequences inflicted upon the southland following the Civil War, Economic and political devastation was rampant. The Union government, supported by northern abolitionists, were confronted with seemingly insurmountable difficulties, Amongst these were the alleviation of extensive confederate refugee problems, and the plight of illiterate, destitute, newly emancipated Negroes. These former slaves, ill-prepared and ill-equipped to assume responsibility for themselves, faced a bleak and piteous future.
     On March 3, 1865, Congress authorized the creation of a government-sponsored agency, under whose jurisdiction would be the provision of relief for freedmen and war refugees. Entitled "Freedmen's Bureau," this organization became the most important tool for rehabilitation, education, and job training of the free African American. Far less successful were the Bureau's efforts to obtain land and civil rights for Blacks. These goals were thwarted by both President Andrew Johnson's restoration of abandoned lands to pardoned Southerners, and opposition to racial equality by Southern white bigots.
     It was during this period that a mechanical bank was produced and designated the "Freedman's Bureau" (Figure 1). Interestingly, the bank's title is the classic example of a double entendre, with the word "bureau" referring to both a government agency and a chest of drawers. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of documented information pertaining to either the bank's design or manufacture, Hearsay attributes its origin to a company operating out of Springfield, Mass., circa 1865.
     The construction of "Freedman's Bureau" Bank is entirely of wood, specifically walnut, and it is coated with a dark brown varnish. The words "FREEDMAN'S BUREAU" (on the top of the chest) and "NOW YOU SEE IT & NOW YOU DON'T" (on the drawers) are stenciled in gold. Similarly, both the left and right sides of the bank are stenciled, but with a red and gold floral design.
     The "Freedman's Bureau" is a member of a particular group of mechanicals known as "trick drawer banks." This distinguished category encompasses such notables as the patented "Serrell's Bureau" (Figure 2), and Tollner's "Trick Savings Bank" (Figure 3).
     Operation of the "Freedman's Bureau" is typical of this "trick drawer" group. A coin is placed within the opened top drawer of the chest. When the drawer is closed, the false-hinged bottom flips down, releasing the coin to the bottom of the bank. Upon reopening the drawer, the bottom is raised into position creating the illusion of a solidly constructed, empty drawer. Deposits are retrieved by removing the sliding panel underneath the bureau. There is a cloth baffle within the bank which muffles the sound of coins descending from the drawer into the bottom of the chest.
     Seen in Figure 4 is an outline drawing of an original "Freedman's Bureau" Bank. This should aid the collector in determination of size and scale. To date, there are no known reproductions. However, considering the bank's extremely rare status and monetary value combined with simplistic construction, creation of a bogus example is certainly feasible. Ergo, consideration of purchase of such an item should be accompanied by expert corroboration and provenance, both of which play significant roles.
     In closing, another mechanical bank manufactured during those troubled times expresses the plight of the disheartened, emancipated Negroes. The "Freedman's Bank" (Figure 5) was a product of James B. Secor of Bridgeport, Conn., and will be discussed in my next month's article in Antique Toy World.
     Acknowledgments: The "Freedman's Bureau" Bank, shown in Figure 1, is in the collection of Steve and Marilyn Steckbeck.
     Correction and addendum: (from October, 1997) Refer to Antique Toy World, June 1997: "THE FREEDMAN'S BUREAU." Fellow collector William Werbell has been kind enough to send me a copy of an original label affixed to his example of this mechanical bank. The label identifies the bank as "THE FREEDMEN'S BUREAU," thereby correcting my spelling. In addition, the label identifies the manufacturer of the bank. It reads: "FREEDMEN'S BUREAU, MANUFACTURED BY F.L. CHILDS CO., SPRINGFIELD, MASS. PATENT AFPLIED FOR."

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