COLLECTORS ROUNDUP — March 1947
The Mechanical Banker
By Richard M. Lederer, Jr.
The hobby of collecting mechanical banks is a relatively new one dating back not much more than twenty years. According to an early student of banks, the first collector was one David Moskowitz, but he seems to have dropped out of sight. Elmer Rand Jacobs, executive vice-president of the Seamen’s Bank for Savings amassed the first large collection which is prominently displayed today in the branches of this institution. Andrew Emerine, president of the First National Bank of Fostoria, Ohio came along soon after and through advertising and circulars also was able to gather an outstanding collection. Until his recent death when his collection was broken up, James C. Jones of Cleveland was one of the better known exponents of the hobby. Dr. Arthur E. Corby of New York has what is believed to be the largest collection. William Ferguson of the Bank for Savings in N. Y., and Mark Haber of Wethersfield, Conn., also have outstanding collections.
A list of all hobbyists would run on to an estimated 400, but there are probably not more than 20 really outstanding collections in the country. The name of Norman Sherwood should not pass unmentioned. Sherwood was not a collector, but a dealer; the first of a great number who through their research and perseverance have added much to the lore of bank collecting. He greatly helped the infant collections of Emerine and Jones and his writings at the time shed much light on a little known subject.
Relatively little has been written on the subject of mechanical banks. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, records the first one as being made in China during the Han Dynasty around the beginning of the Christian era. Writers on Archimedes claim he made some but let us jump to more modern times and look at the subject since 1867. The papers which were filed with the U.S. Patent office provide considerable information about the mechanical and historical background of a bank. The appearance frequently changed from the drawing originally submitted. Peter Adams designed a few by himself, but most were done in collaboration with Charles G. Shepard and then Adams assigned his half of the patents to Walter J. Shepard. Trade catalogues reveal that these banks were then made by the Shepard Company. Other prolific designers were James H. Bowen of Philadelphia and Charles A. Baily of Cobalt, Connecticut, both of whose banks were made by the J. E. Stevens Company of Cromwell, Connecticut. Many banks for which patents were obtained were never commercially manufactured; consequently, caution must be used when studying the papers.
Another important source of information is the trade catalogues in which the banks were offered to retailers. These show who made the bank, when they were publicly offered, their appearance and, most important, they sometimes show the only proof that certain banks were actually produced. Collecting these is a hobby in itself, but the true collector of banks wants to know all he can about their background and any source is of interest to him.
Only one book has appeared on this subject, but two more are in the manuscript stage. Ina Hayward Bellows’ "Old Mechanical Banks" was published in 1940 and has become somewhat of a guide book. It is an excellent introduction to the subject although some glaring errors can be found. Louis H. Hertz, an authority on toys, has made most extensive research into the subject of manufacturers and jobbers and has, perhaps, the greatest knowledge of the historical background of the industry. His comprehensive book has not been published. Another book, not yet available, has been written by John D. Meyer, president of the First National Bank of Tyrone, Pennsylvania. Mr. Meyer has one of the country’s outstanding collections as well as a great fund of knowledge. His book, when published, also should be very worth while.
Magazines and newspapers have frequently carried articles on banks, but these have generally been of the feature story, human interest type and do not contain much of value to collectors or dealers. The first of these, to my knowledge, appeared in the October 1926 issue of "Antiques" and they have continued at various intervals in "Antiques," "Avocations," and "Relics" as well as in many others including "Coronet," "Liberty," and "House and Garden." Newspapers throughout the country have mentioned banks in their columns, usually briefly describing one or two of the common banks in a large local collection.
Much can be learned from the "want lists" of large collectors. Study of these help the novice to know how the rarer items look and work. Excellent lists have been circulated by William F. Ferguson of the Bank of Savings in New York, Mark Haber, a collector-dealer, of Weathersfield, Connecticut, Mr. Meyer, Mr. Emerine and the Seamen’s Bank. Graded lists, assigning a number from 1 to 10 or a letter from A to F have been published by Norman Sherwood, John Allaire and in the back of Mrs. Bellows’ book, but these should be taken with several grains of salt as they are sadly out of date in the light of more recent information. Furthermore, I do not feel that banks can be lumped into any price class, but rather each has a value all its own.
Despite the paucity of printed material on this subject, much is known about mechanical banks. Old timers, both collectors and dealers, have picked up scraps of information here and there which probably will never be collated into one place and it is only through friendship and exchange that this knowledge can be obtained. I have spent many pleasant hours, and hope to spend many more, with other collectors and dealers. They are a fine lot, interested in banks for their hobby value and always willing to share some little known fact. I hope to increase my circle of correspondents through these articles and to have the pleasure of meeting some of you personally.