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Weeden’s Plantation Darkey Bank
by Sy Schreckinger – ANTIQUE TOY WORLD Magazine – December, 1999

     Shame, Degradation, and impoverishment were the lot of the unfortunate blacks brought captive to this country from Africa and thrust into a world of slavery. With little else to turn to, religion, music, and dance were temporary escapes from reality, providing a measure of comfort and maintaining cultural identity.
     The soul-stirring melodies of the slaves eventually evolved into a form of entertainment for the "white" public. This was demonstrated during the mid to late nineteenth century when Minstral shows became quite popular. This 'new' music and dance did not escape the attention of venturesome businessmen. Toy manufacturers of the era created one of the most desirable and successful category of children's playthings ever produced, i.e. the automated Jigger Toy. This toy appeared in clockworks, as well as steam or hand-operated dancing figures.
     An enterprising individual of the period was William N. Weeden of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Acclaimed as one of the foremost mechanical inventors of his day, Weeden created the "Plantation Darkey Bank" (Figure 1), a key wind, clockwork mechanical bank which featured a Negro "Jigger" accompanied by an automated black banjo player. His invention earned him Patent numbers 387,469 and 387,470 and 387,472, all granted on August 7, 1882 (Figure 2). The "Plantation Darkey Bank" was manufactured by the Weeden Manufacturing Company of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Formed in 1882, this company also became noted for its miniaturized steam engines and steam-operated toys, both categories that are now considered highly collectible.
     The "Plantation Darkey Bank" was not only marketed and sold commercially ($9.00 per dozen to the trade, and $1.20 each to the public (Figure 3)) but also given, free, to individuals selling subscriptions to the then- popular "Youth's Companion" magazine.
     Interestingly, the "Plantation Darkey Bank" was manufactured by the Weeden Company during two different periods of history, i.e. in the 1880s-1890s, and again in 1920 when it was reintroduced, utilizing their original dies. The twentieth century reissues are identical to the earlier produced mechanicals and are valued similarly by collectors.
     Several early Weeden flyers, packing labels and advertisements indicate approximately six other clock work mechanical banks were produced. Although similar in design to the "Plantation Darkey Bank", they utilized different graphics. To date, only three varying examples have surfaced: the bank presently being discussed (Figure 1), the extremely rare "Ding Dong Bell Bank", and the "Japanese Ball Tosser Bank" of which there is only one known example. Rumors have persisted over the years of the existence of other Weeden creations, e.g. "The Grasshopper Bank", "The School Master Bank", "The Little Jack Homer Bank", and "The Old Mill Bank". However, regrettably, to date, none have surfaced.
     Action of the "Plantation Darkey Bank" is entertaining and charming. Initially, the key at the back of the bank is wound several turns, counter-clockwise (as indicated by the arrow). Either a penny or a nickel is inserted into the coin slot on the right side of the shed. The dancer begins to jig and the banjo player's right arm moves as though playing the instrument. This action continues for a period of time, then stops automatically. Deposits are retrieved by opening the key lock trap door at the rear of the bank.
     The "Plantation Darkey Bank" is composed mainly of embossed tin-plate; the exception is the back wall and bottom, which are constructed of thin sheets of wood.
     Not evident in the photo seen in Figure 1 are several words embossed into both sides and back of the bank. On the left side are the words "JIG DANCIN", on the right wall "PETE JONSON, BANJO LUSSUNS, ONE CENT" and on the back trap door, "COIN SAFE". There are no design variations of the "Plantation Darkey Bank", but there are several color differences. These pertain solely to the stage backdrop and bank building, which were painted either white, black, or a dark brown japan.
     As with most fragile toys manufactured during this period, each "Plantation Darkey Bank" was packaged singly in a wooden box. The earlier nineteenth century examples were supplied with an elaborate paper label advertising other banks in the Weeden line, while those produced in the twentieth century have no paper labels. On these later containers, the company identified its contents with the words "DARKEY BANK" stamped in small letters onto one end of the box.
     I am not aware of the existence of any reproductions of "Plantation Darkey Bank". Nevertheless, the following dimensions are provided to aid the collector in determining accurate size and scale: Height 5-1/2 inches; Width 3-11/16 inches; Depth 3-3/8 inches.
     On a final note: if/when contemplating purchase of a "Plantation Darkey Bank" be aware that the dancing figure is not only extremely fragile, but easily removed or lost. Ergo, most examples of this mechanical feature a reproduced figure or no figure at all. In either case, the bank is greatly devalued.
     ACKNOWLEDGMENT: The superb, all-original example of "Plantation Darkey Bank" (Figure 1) is from the collection of Steve and Marilyn Steckbeck.

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