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The Old Woman In The Shoe Bank
by Sy Schreckinger – ANTIQUE TOY WORLD Magazine – November, 1998

                  "There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
                  She had so many children she didn't know what to do.
                  She gave them some broth without any bread;
                  She whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed."
                       —Anonymous
 

     Rambunctious offspring and their harried mother are the subjects of the above poem. This well-known, popular verse first appeared in print in 1797. Since that date, it has been included in most nursery rhyme anthologies under the Mother Goose cognomen.
     Its derivation is rooted in nineteenth-century English folklore, wherein casting a shoe after the bride as she departs for her honeymoon insures the fertility of the union. The old woman's multitude of moppets abiding in her shoe is an apparent depiction of that custom.
     The rhyme of the old woman and her brood has been delighting children since its introduction. It was not, however, until 1883 that William S. Reed of Leominster, Massachusetts, brought the one-dimensional imagery to life in the form of a three-dimensional animated cast iron mechanical bank (Figure 1). In that same year, he applied for, and received, two separate patents for his creation. The first was a design patent, No. D-13,969, (Figure 2) which specifically protected the bank's concept and visual interpretation. The second, No. 289,140, (Figure 3) explicitly protected its action and internal workings.
     Of interest is the fact that the patents (Figures 2 and 3) describe a rear wheel in the heel of the shoe which activates the stick-wielding arm of the woman. However, as evidenced by the photo seen in Figure 1, the mechanical bank was produced sans wheels. Most likely, this modification was incorporated by the foundry in an attempt to create a less complicated, more economical product.
     The "Old Woman in the Shoe" Bank was manufactured by the W.S. Reed Toy Company of Leominster, Massachusetts. Since its specialty was the manufacture of wooden and paper toys, the company subcontracted the casting and actual production of the mechanical to a small iron foundry located in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.
     Inasmuch as no advertisements or sale invoice has surfaced, it is generally believed that the only two known, superb, examples are either salesmen's samples or working prototypes. The supposition held by many collectors and historians alike is that William Reed abandoned mass production of his creation based upon complexity of manufacture and/or costliness.
     Nonetheless, its mystique and charisma are responsible for the bank's desirability, ranking it as one of the most coveted mechanicals. This assumption was validated at a-recent auction held by Bill Bertoia wherein the bank pictured in Figure 1 realized a record price of $426,000.00!
     Action of the "Old Woman in the Shoe" is somewhat reflective of the nursery rhyme... Initially, the lever, which is located behind the heel of the shoe, and is in the form of a child's foot, is pressed downward, Simultaneously, the old woman raises her switch in a most menacing manner as the little boy, arms outstretched, reels backward. A coin is then placed upon his arms and the lever is released. Concurrently, the child leans forward, dropping the money into the bank, and the old woman lowers her stick. Deposits are retrieved by removing the key lock coin retainer underneath the bank.
     I am not aware of attempts to reproduce the "Old Woman in the Shoe" bank. However, taking into account the aforementioned price attained at auction, the possibility of a larcenous replication might very well become a reality. Figure 4 is a base diagram of an original example. A reproduction would appear approximately one-quarter of an inch short O.D., than indicated.
     Addendum: Of interest...Several years ago, noted mechanical bank historian, Mr. F.H. Griffith, related information obtained from the widow of William S. Reed. She recounted that her husband conceived of the "Old Woman in the Shoe" bank during a Sunday sermon at their local church. However, as a devout, pious man, Mr. Reed was to suffer great remorse for his contemplation of the creation of a toy bank while in a house of worship.
     ACKNOWLEDGMENT: The photo of the "Old Woman in the Shoe" bank seen in Figure 1 was graciously supplied by Bill Bertoia Auctions.

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