The Old Woman In The
by Sy Schreckinger – ANTIQUE TOY WORLD Magazine – November,
"There was an old woman who lived in a
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."
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.
(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
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.,
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
ACKNOWLEDGMENT: The photo of the "Old Woman in the Shoe" bank seen in
Figure 1 was graciously supplied by Bill Bertoia Auctions.