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Web Note: 1976 Encyclopedia pages from collector scrapbook. See below for OCR text (excluding text below photos).












Making a Game of Moneysaving

     One day not too many years ago my mother, shopping for china at an antique dealer's, was shown a small mechanical bank in the shape of the famous old Tammany Hall leader, Boss Tweed. It had an interesting action. You put a coin in Tweed's hand, and he immediately stuffed it in his pocket while nodding his head to say "thank you." As I was in the business of manufacturing safes, the dealer and my mother thought I would enjoy it, and she bought it for me.
     The next Christmas I went shopping for presents at the same dealer's and he had another mechanical bank I thought amusing. I bought it. From then on, whenever I came across a bank that had an interesting action I picked it up. One clay I realized I had about 35 banks. Without trying to, I had become a collector.
     The first mass-produced American toy banks were "still" banks—banks with no mechanical action. One of the earliest was a penny bank made to accommodate the first large copper coin minted in 1793 by the new government. Mechanical banks appeared during the 1860s; a patent for a mechanical bank called Hall's Excelsior was filed in 1869.

Edwin H. Mosler comes by an interest in banks naturally, for he is the retired head of the safe and vault manufacturing company that bears his name. He has been collecting banks for 25 years.

     The heyday of production was the period between 1860 and 1935; some 400 distinct types were made and for each there were usually many variations. When one manufacturer produced a popular bank, his competitors were likely to copy it—with just enough alterations to skirt any possible suit for patent infringement. I suppose I now have about 1,500 banks in my collection but I still do not own examples of 24 basic types. I know where 22 of them are, but it will take some time to gather them up since their owners are also collectors and are not anxious to trade or sell.
     Mechanical banks were toys intended to encourage children to save their pennies by making the process fun. In some the mechanical action rewarded the child with a piece of candy. But essentially the banks were simply designed to amuse children with the intricacy of  their mechanical actions, which could be started by depositing a coin or depressing a lever.
     Mechanical banks made of cast iron became popular shortly after the end of the Civil War, when several Northern foundries started producing them as a profitable side line to their regular business of casting such items as stovepipes, plumbing pipes and tools. The J & E Stevens Company of Cromwell, Connecticut, was one of the most prominent. Manufacturers competed to see how complex they could make their banks' operation. One of my favorites shows William Tell and his son (opposite). When you put in a coin, William Tell shoots the coin at the apple on the boy's head and knocks the apple off. The coin drops into the bank behind the son, who then raises his hand to protect himself.
     To perform stunts like this, mechanical banks relied on various combinations of levers, springs, wheels and other moving parts. In some the weight of the coin plays an essential role by moving a lever from one position to another, causing a wheel to rotate, and that in turn activates another part. Naturally, the more intricate the outer action of the bank, the more ingenious the inner mechanism. A particularly complex contraption operates another favorite of mine, a hunter who actually brings down a bird. The mechanical action sends the bird flying—it is attached to a string. The hunter turns and fires, and the bird drops.
     Some banks tell little stories from American history. Even before the trust-busting clays of Teddy Roosevelt there was a bank that showed a workingman hitting "big business" with a sledge hammer, whereupon the coin dropped into a breadbasket labeled "Honest Labor." And one of the rarest mechanical banks, called the Freedman's bank, reflects the racism of the 19th Century. In it a black bank teller sits behind a cashier's desk. When a coin is placed on the desk, the teller grasps it with his left hand and thumbs his nose with his right. Obviously the bank was intended to make an antiblack comment on the behavior of freed slaves after the Civil War. This bank was made by Jerome Secor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and, as far as I know, only five exist. Ethnic bigotry is discernible in many old banks. I have several that poke fun at the Irish and Chinese immigrants brought in to provide cheap labor during the building of the railroads. One depicts a lazy- looking Chinese laborer playing cards lying down. Another has Paddy, the traditional Irish comic figure. sitting with a pig.
     But the kinds of mechanical banks I enjoy most have an interesting action as well as historical significance. The sophistication of the mechanism is important. For example, one shows a young girl skipping rope. It would be enough, perhaps, just to have her jump up and down. She does that, but at each jump she also turns her head to the side and steps over the rope one leg at a time, just the way a little girl would.
     Rope-skipping is only one of many complex acts put on by these mechanical toys. When a coin is placed in the Clown and Harlequin bank, Harlequin's partner, Columbine, does a twirling dance in a slot that runs partway around a small stage. The confidence man's old shell game is played by a bank called the Mikado—it portrays a Japanese who uses two cymbals in place of shells to hide the coin. When the coin is put down, the Mikado's arms move the cymbals over it. First you see the coin under one cymbal, then under the other—and then it disappears inside the bank. Another bank has a racecourse with two horses on a circular track. The deposit of a coin sets the horses running, and either horse can win because the spring that sets them off flicks both horses simultaneously.
    In the days when mechanical banks were in their prime, moral uplift was an important theme and so some banks had Biblical motifs. On one the coin gets a whale to spit up Jonah (page 118). Political subjects were also popular. When Germany's Chancellor Bismarck put a tariff on American pork, an American manufacturer brought out a bank that had the unpopular Bismarck popping up out of the body of a pig.
During World War I. when the production of cast iron for civilian use was severely limited, manufacturers began to use tin, wood and other materials for banks. Now, of course, many banks are made of plastic. Most serious collectors reject plastic banks, having rather arbitrarily agreed among themselves that mechanical banks are collectible only if they were made before 1935. For myself, I don't agree. My collection includes, for example, a green plastic mechanical bank in the shape of Big Bird, a character in TV's Sesame Street, and a cast-iron bank of the '70s showing Uncle Sam arguing with an Arab over oil. I also have a cast-iron bank based on the much-publicized tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in 1973. If a new mechanical bank were to be made tomorrow morning, I would want a model for my collection by afternoon.
     Although still banks interest me, too, and an almost unlimited number of these banks are available from all historical periods, I have not tried to collect them with the same passion or interest. From time to time, I have picked up unusual still banks mostly to use as lagniappe in trading with other collectors who have mechanical banks I want. Trading between experienced collectors can sometimes become extremely sharp, and still banks, I have discovered, make excellent trading counters for reaching a mutually agreeable exchange.
     When I first started, I collected anything that appealed to me. I still do. But I always try for mint condition. A bank that has been extensively restored has lost much of its value even if great care has been exercised. Badly restored banks give themselves away by looking freshly painted or having crudely joined parts. Whenever I have to have a bank restored, I cannibalize parts from other banks made during the same period and I have the work done by a craftsman whose passion for authenticity matches my own.
     Although I value my collection for its condition, I do not worry about its market value. That's for investors, not collectors. Sometimes, I must admit, I am shocked to find out how high prices have gone in recent years. A bank that once sold for $4,500 was bid up to $14,000 in one sale—and the last price tends to become the floor for the next time around. That Tammany bank my mother bought in fun in 1952 was selling 25 years later for $130 in good condition. That's expensive for a joke.
     Because of the banks' monetary value, some collectors keep theirs under lock and key. But I like to show mine to other collectors, so I display them in my office, which is protected with a burglar alarm. Included in the display is a considerable assemblage of related materials— patent models, advertising brochures and the original molds from which the banks were made. I even have a few examples of fake banks. These are usually mechanical toys to which coin slots were later added. Then the toys were passed off as true mechanical banks.
     Despite its breadth, my collection is simply a source of pleasure to me, not a scholarly aggregation of artifacts. In fact, I keep a privately published book in my office for visiting collectors to read: What I Know about Collecting Mechanical Banks. Its pages are entirely blank. But my shelves are filled with things I love.


The Museum of the City of New York New York, New York 10029
Perelman Antique Toy Museum Philadelphia. Pennsylvania 19106
Seaman's Bank for Savings New York. New York 10005
Hertz, Louis H., Mechanical Toy Banks, Mark Haber, 1947.
McCumber, Robert L., Toy Bank Reproductions and Fakes. Published by the author, 1971.
Meyer. John D., Old Penny Banks: Mechanicals, Stills by Larry Freeman, Century House. Inc., 1960.
Warman, Edwin G., Mechanicals and Stills Price Guide. E. G. Warman, 1975.


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