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The Circus Bank
by Sy Schreckinger ANTIQUE TOY WORLD Magazine June, 2000

     Clowns and elephants are the pegs upon which the circus is hung," so proclaimed the late, great P.T. Barnum. It was this philosophy that motivated his launching of the first multi-ring circus in 1881. Seven years later, in 1888, Barnum and his new associate, James A. Bailey, were exhibiting several varying acts performing simultaneously in three adjacent rings. Prosperity, glory, and excitement were a part of this world of sawdust, bright lights, and glitter. Audiences were thrilled by the circus, although no entertainer was greeted with more enthusiasm and applause than the master of buffoonery the clown.
     Barnum's huge success and the popularity of his venture did not escape attention. Two entrepreneurs, Charles G. Shepard and Peter Adams, of Buffalo, New York, also hoped to profit from the public's infatuation with the circus and its zany clowns. They created a toy mechanical penny bank that was almost certain to appeal to the populace. Not surprisingly, Shepard and Adams named their invention the "Circus Bank" (Figure 1).
     They applied for a patent on August 13, 1888, and subsequently received Design Patent Number 18,618 on September 18, 1888 (Figure 2). Coincidentally, this date of patent corresponds with what many believe to be the "Golden Age of mechanical banks" and the "Golden Age of the circus."
     The "Circus Bank" was manufactured by the Shepard Hardware Company of Buffalo, New York, one of the most prominent manufacturers of mechanical banks of that era. Shepard's product, without exception, displayed the utmost degree of professionalism, both sculpturally and artistically. Scrupulous attention was paid to minute details such as delicately painted eyes, eyebrows, eyelashes, buttons, striping, hair, etc. Artistry of that caliber has never been equaled by any other hand painted toy manufacturer in the history of the genre.
     Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, Shepard neglected to undercoat its banks prior to painting. Ergo, the slightest amount of mishandling, or adverse environmental conditions, resulted in the shedding of large areas of the colorful coats of these cast iron works of art. It is not likely that a collector could discover any Shepard bank that would be in superb to near condition. However, when one is located, it most certainly is worthy of serious consideration.
     Figure 3 represents an advertisement that has appeared in a Selchow and Richter Toy Jobbers Catalog, circa 1888. In it, the "Circus Bank" was offered for sale at $8.50 per dozen. Compare this to the hammer price of $55,000 for an almost mint example, including original wooden box, at an auction several years ago.
     Figure 4 indicates a full-color trade card, circa 1888, actual size 3-1/4 inches x 5-5/16 inches, which had been utilized by Shepard to educate perspective buyers to its newly-introduced country stores and shops that sold Shepard Hardware merchandise.
     Action of the "Circus Bank" is best described as both amusing and appropriate to the subject. To quote from the ad (Figure 3) and the trade card (Figure 4): "Place a coin upon the bracket in front of the money receptacle. When the crank is turned, the pony goes around the ring and the clown deposits the coin. The pony kicks up, the wheels turn, and the clown's arm goes up and down, making it a very amusing toy." Deposits are removed by opening the rectangular, key lock coin retainer on the side of the bank.
     Figure 5 represents the front panel of the original wooden packing box which accompanied the bank pictured in Figure 1. Interestingly, the words "EXCELSIOR SERIES" appear upon its facade. This designation has been noted on a few other mechanicals produced by the company, namely "Picture Gallery Bank," "Mason Bank," and "Trick Dog Bank." It has not been determined why Shepard would have chosen to acclaim only the aforementioned banks from their complete line. However, it is the opinion of both collectors and historians alike that each of the fifteen different documented mechanicals created by Shepard Hardware exhibit the same degree of artistic excellence.
     The "Circus Bank" is recognized as the rarest of the Shepard mechanicals. Similarly, the trade card shown in Figure 4 is the scarcest in its category.
     On a cautionary note, both the bank's crank handle and the key lock coin retainer are easily removable. For this reason, when most "Circus" banks are found they are missing either one or both of these parts. In such cases, the value of the bank is somewhat compromised.
     To my knowledge, there are no casting or variations of the "Circus Bank." In addition, I am not aware of any attempt at reproducing an entire mechanical, other than recasting specific parts in order to restore an incomplete original example. Nevertheless, I am including a base diagram (Figure 6). If the bank was to be reproduced, it would appear approximately one-quarter inch smaller O.D. than indicated.

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