The most eagerly sought examples are of the mechanical variety and date from 1865 to 1900. Of cast iron, machine-made, and turned out in quantity, they retailed for fifty cents or a dollar. In all, about two hundred subjects were produced.
Their fascination yesterday and today may be attributed to the fact that a penny dropped into the slot produced more or less elaborate action. This varied from a simple nod of the head by some figure, human or animal, to an elaborate football scene in which two members of the opposing team- tackled with speed and finality the man holding the ball. Collectors of such banks are recruited from the dignified callings of banking, medicine, and dentistry. I have yet to meet one who can resist showing you how each and every little puppet show in his collection operates.
Dramatic as these mechanical banks are, the true collector tends to search out the earlier examples. These were stationary, of varied materials, and reflected an era when children demanded less for their money. Such toy banks were of all sorts and kinds. They were made of tin, japanned in bright colours of glass, pottery, wood, and a particular variety of plaster of Paris known as Pennsylvania chalk.
We do not know just when the first penny banks appeared in America. Diligent search of children's books of the early nineteenth century discloses no reference, by word or picture. The United States Census of 1850 enumerates forty-seven toymen. Webster's Dictionary of 1848 gives the definition of a toyman as “one who vends or makes toys.” One may safely infer that banks were included in the toys vended or made and that most of these collectibles date from the middle of the century.
The earliest were small boxlike affairs of tin, held together with solder. In both shaping and ornamentation, an effort was made to have them resemble some public building such as a church, bank building, or the like. Usually at the coin slot appeared either the word "bank" or some didactic motto, such as "Time is Money." Architecturally, these miniatures were of the 1840 Gothic Revival school, which gives them the logical date of a few years later, probably about 1850. Whether they were first imported from England or elsewhere and later made in this country cannot be stated with any degree of certainty. But nearly all commercially produced toys were first imported and then copied here, so it is probable that the same thing took place with these little banks.
Not all of the early examples were house-shaped. Some were produced as advertising novelties. A small bank, shaped to represent a shelf clock with Gothic-arched top, is in the Elmer Rand Jacobs Collection in the executive offices of the Seamen's Bank for Savings, New York City. On the face, done in black and white, is lettered "The Dunstable Mass Clock Co. Dunstable." The rest of the finish is grained to resemble rosewood and the coin slot is in the back.
As time went on the makers of these tin toys tended to forsake architectural lines and produced banks of many other shapes. One, popular at the close of the Civil War, was a red drum. Here the coin slot was in the upper head and ornamented with the injunction "Save the Union." Still later, novelties in tin somewhat resembling the products they advertised were made and, in fact, are even made today. The Sunday-school mite box, those distributed by the Salvation Army and other charitable organizations, although made of cardboard, are direct descendants of these early tin banks.
Those of glass, pottery, Pennsylvania chalk, or wood are probably a few years younger than their tin forerunners, but originally they were not made commercially. A craftsman wanted a present for a son or a daughter. Why go to a store and pay money when he was capable of making a perfectly good repository for the large copper pennies then in circulation? Thus, regardless of the material, such early banks were offhand pieces. In design they followed the whim of the producer. Today they are found in a wide variety of shapes and styles.
If the craftsman was a glass blower, he formed some hollow shape from the metal left in the pot after the day's work, provided it with a coin slot, and finished it with as much or as little ornamentation as he pleased. Some were little more than hollow balls about the size of a large orange and decorated possibly with applied scrolls and rosettes. Others, more elaborate, were of the footed type basic to goblets and small lamps. Occasionally one was made with a decoration that showed it to have been mould-blown. Both coloured and clear glass were used and workmanship varied from crude to extreme nicety.
About 1890 glass banks were made commercially and might be termed dual-purpose pieces, since their original function was to serve as a container of something else than money. One, a milk-glass house surmounted by an ample chimney, contained prepared mustard. On the bottom a paper label advised the purchaser that after the contents had been consumed, the thin glass at the top of the chimney could be tapped out easily and an excellent bank for a child would result. Whether the instructions also suggested that the removable roof be made fast with cement is not dear. Possibly the mustard manufacturer left this detail to his public.
Another bank of this type was that of a Philadelphia candy manufacturer, who sent his sweets forth in coloured glass containers resembling the Liberty Bell. These were made with a tin screw bottom and a coin slot that could easily be broken through when the time came to transform the candy holder. Other banks in opaque, milk-white, or tinted glass were made late in the nineties to compete with the pottery ones sold by toy stores, low-priced crockery dealers' shops, and general stores.
The early pottery banks, like those of glass, were offhand. pieces. They ranged from the simplest of shapes to the most elaborate. A small jug was made without the customary hole for the cork, but with a coin slot cut in the side. Again, the bank might take the shape of a pint jar without removable lid. Some of the more elaborate ones simulated animals, such as pigs, which were exceedingly popular; there were dogs similar to those made some years earlier by the Staffordshire potters. Later came the commercial pieces when some of the potteries produced the so-called china banks, sold the country over for ten cents each or even less. They came in a wide variety of shapes and designs. Among them was one in the form of a book that was an adaptation of the famous book bottle; a late example depicted an early automobile.
Among the wooden banks one can find practically everything from a simple box covered with wallpaper, and provided with the essential coin slot in the centre of the top, to elaborate examples of the skill of some wood turner. One of the most popular designs seems to have been a bank following the lines of an old-fashioned. beehive. Later, when some of the pillbox factories turned to making wooden banks commercially, they produced miniature barrels made in two parts and sealed by a band of gummed paper pasted around the middle. Others were in the form of houses and a few., probably of Swiss, German, or Japanese origin, were most elaborate of ornament and intricate of construction. Some even had a concealed spring .which, when touched, would release the money container.
Along with these came the cast-iron banks. From 1870 to 1910 they were made in many designs and forms. These metal toys were of two varieties, the passive and the active. Of the latter there were also two sorts: those operated by a lever that was pressed to deposit the coin and those run by a clockwork mechanism. The lever banks far outnumber those run by a winding key.
The haze surrounding the origin and date of toy banks clears away with these cast-iron examples. Although not all of them bear the date when the design was patented, many are so marked and some have the name of the maker lettered on them. Two editions of the trade catalogues of the J. & E. Stevens Co., Cromwell, Connecticut, shed much light on the mechanical bank industry. In these catalogues, one apparently brought out in 1898 and the other dated 1906, each bank is illustrated, the action described, and the retail price given.
Other American makers of these toys were the Enterprise Manufacturing Co., Philadelphia; the Kenton Hardware Manufacturing Co., Kenton, Ohio; a nameless maker, located at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, credited with originating the Jonah and the Whale bank; the company which marked its banks Excelsior Series; I. B. & Co.; an unknown maker believed to have been located at Buffalo, New York, and the one which produced the H. & H. Registering Bank, which was patented June 12 1888.
Much specific information is to be gained from a study of patenting dates. The earliest would seem to be the Horse Race, which bears the date August 14, 1871. Here four horses move around a circular track when a coin is deposited and the lever operated, in a manner reminiscent of roulette. No maker's name is given. Nor is there one for the Novelty Bank which was patented twice the following year. Here the door to the bank opens and shows a man bearing a tray for the coin. On December 23, 1873, the Tammany Bank was patented. Here a plump little man, an excellent likeness of William Marcy Tweed, New York's most notorious political spoilsman, sits in an easy chair. (This was most appropriate, since he was head of a well-known chair shop before he turned to politics.) As a coin is placed in his ever-waiting right hand, his arm swings downward, the coin disappears through the slot which is his breast pocket and the smiling boss nods in thanks.
This bank, although not rare, is popular with collectors and is the earliest one shown in the Stevens catalogue. It is there labelled "Little Fat Man." In 1874 the Circular Bank, maker unknown, was patented. Its characteristic was a comic figure which appeared in the cupola when a coin was deposited. Two stationary banks, patented in 1875, reflect the coming Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Brought out by the Enterprise Manufacturing Co., one is a reproduction of Independence Hall and the other just the tower of the building. Probably the same year, or early in the next, was the date of the Liberty Bell bank that rings when a coin is deposited. It has pictures in colour of four of the chief buildings on its sides as well as a lengthy history of the bell pasted on the bottom, but no maker's name or date.
As can be seen, the subjects represented by these gaily painted banks ranged all the way from the Biblical Jonah and the Whale to that early twentieth century comic strip known as "The Katzenjammer Kids." In short, the youngster of the mechanical bank era was not only entertained while he saved his pennies but he got a smattering of history with "Indian Welcoming Columbus"; of folklore with "William Tell"; and of current events with "Lion Hunter." The latter subject depicted the late President Theodore Roosevelt shooting a lion, which would date this bank after 1908. Other banks representative of events and personages of their day are "World's Fair," a stationary bank; "Moody and Sankey"; and "North Pole."
Then there is the Freedman's Bank for which all toy bank collectors keep an eager eye. It was made in Bridgeport, Connecticut, about 1865, by Jerome B. Secor. For a long time the most patient search yielded only an advertising circular and one fragment of this bank, but recently a perfect example was found in Mexico City! There are two reasons for its rarity. It was a commercial failure because its maker tried to market it for five dollars, which was too much money even for free-spending Reconstruction days; and it was made of wood and therefore easily broken. The action was complicated and controlled by a clockwork mechanism. When and if a perfect example is found it can be recognized easily. On a wooden base stands a darky dressed in bright-coloured clothes. If a coin is placed on the desk in front of him and the button controlling the mechanism pressed, his left hand brushes it into a slot, his right rises until his thumb touches his nose, and his head turns from side to side. A glazed blue-paper label with the words "Freedman's Bank" lettered in gold is pasted across the front of the desk. "A little too free," must have been the comment of many a Victorian parent and therein probably lay one more reason why the ingenious originator failed to profit from his idea.
Although these mechanical banks were made so late that many of us either owned one or more of them as children, or at least remember some of the events they depict, the idea back of them is at least two thousand years old. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a Chinese pottery alms box of the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220). Poised on the top cover is a little bear which bows when a coin is deposited in the slot at the front. This cunningly contrived figure is badly broken and battered from the centuries of registering the coins dropped into the box beneath but the mechanism controlling its antics still works!