GLOBAL FEATURE SERVICE
47 West 56th Street
New York 19, New York
Approx. 2100 words, Circa 1950
Richard M. Lederer, Jr.
(well-known American collector)
What do people want to know about
Mechanical Banks? Well, dealers want to know what they're worth, and what
they can get for them. Collectors want to know intimate details about types
varieties, manufacturers, designers and so forth ad infinitum. Collectors
of other items and antiquarians are interested in what a mechanical bank is,
when they were made and why they fascinate us collectors. To try to answer
all the questions would take a fair sized book; to answer all is impossible.
Originally, most savings banks were made of cast iron in the form of a
person, animal or object-or combination of all three. A "mechanical" bank
was, and is, one in which the insertion of a coin provides or accompanies
some motion of a part of the bank. Those with no motion are "stills" and
those with movable parts that do not coordinate with the coin are
"semi-mechanical". Banks were also made of brass, nickel, rolled steel,
papier mache, wood and pottery. In addition, there are borderline banks such
as the Mail Box which can be construed as either mechanical or
semi-mechanical. Also, in a category of their own, are registering banks.
Although researchers claim that the first mechanical bank dates back to
practically prehistoric times, the first of this popular series, (at least
in America), according to my records, is "Hall's Excelsior" patented by John
Hall of Watertown, Massachusetts, in 1869 and manufactured by the J. & E.
Stevens Company of Cromwell, Connecticut.
Thousands of banks have been made and are being made today. In almost
any novelty store we can find modern versions of the Tin Monkey, the Tin
Minstrel, Jolly Nigger and Pay Phone, for example. The novelty, and interest
to children, determined how many of a particular kind were made, and their
durability, how well they would last. Those particularly appealing in
appearance or action were sold in large quantities and many are available
today. The less interesting items did not sell, consequently not many were
made and have become scarce items. The time proven law of supply and demand
determines the price or value of a bank. As an example: pictured on the
masthead of Collectors Roundup is "Professor Pug Frog's Great Bicycle Feat."
Here is a frog on a bicycle: place a penny in his mouth and press the
release. He will turn a complete somersault and return to his original
position, depositing the coin into the basket held by the boy and knocking
Mother Goose's book of rhymes into her face en route. Highly colored and
beautifully mechanical, this bank was very popular with children. They sold
in quantities in the 1880's to retailers at $8.00 a dozen. However, due to
their clockwork mechanism, children broke them easily and they were thrown
away, making them a fairly scarce item today, selling for over $100 each.
Manufacturers were wont to change their molds from time to time to
improve the appearance or mechanism. This practice gives rise to
"varieties," or banks basically the same but differing in some degrees. Some
collectors consider these varieties as different banks, and where one
variety may be quite common, another of the same bank may be a rarity.
Although prices of mechanical banks have experienced the same
inflationary rise as have other collectors items, some banks readily sell
for around five dollars while rare specimens of which perhaps only one or
two are known, cannot be bought at any price. Does that tell what a bank is
worth? No A bank is worth what someone will pay for it, and it is only with
great familiarity that a person can properly judge value.
How many different mechanical banks were there? Because there are so
many ways of counting, it's difficult to say. Some people count the
"varieties" as separate banks. Descriptions of many banks have appeared even
though the banks themselves cannot be found, but in each case there is hope
that a few may exist. Some designers' models of banks, never commercially
made, are in collectors' hands and are considered in the total. Several of
those who have published lists of banks have done so with superficial
investigation of the subject and have included many names of banks which are
duplications, the same bank being known by different names to several
researchers. Being presumptuous, perhaps, I would say that a list of basic
types would not number more than 280 banks. This number does not include
varieties, proofs, semi-mechanicals or registering banks.
There are many examples of varieties. The Creedmore Bank, showing a
Civil War soldier shooting a penny into a tree, has one variety in which the
soldier wears a bayonet and blanket roll. The Volunteer Bank is often
mistaken for the Creedmore as it appears similar, but the different name is
cast in the base. The Grenadier Bank appears closely the same, but the
soldier's cap has a visor and it, too, has the different name case in. On
some published lists one finds the GAR Bank and the Civil War Soldier Bank.
Collectors are agreed that these are merely different names for the
Creedmore and not other banks. I feel that mentioned above are 3 basic types
and one variety.
Differences in paint can be found, but most collectors do not consider
these to be separate varieties. A change brought about one day when a girl
with a paint brush decided to trade the colors of a jacket and a pair of
trousers is not as important as a change in the casting mold. There must be
at least 150-200 recognized varieties in existence. The author has 18
different varieties of the Jolly Nigger Bank alone.
Many banks appearing on published lists are questionable. Some, such as
Barnyard Animals, Boy Playing Marbles, Charlie Knickerbocker, Croquet
Players, to name a few, are believed never to have been made. Some others,
Battleship Massachusetts, Flatiron Building and General Butler, for example,
are "stills". Cabin Bank, Cart and Horse, Clown and Elephant, and Horse Race
are some which appear twice under these and other names. The Man on Chimney,
Forty-Niner, English Tobacco Bank and Miser are not banks at all, but cigar
cutters, a vending machine and a change purse. The Blacksmith Bank is a
working model formerly owned by the late James C. Jones. This was the proof
made by Frederick Plattner in 1905, but the bank was never commercially
Very few of the patentees gave names to the banks they designed,
apparently leaving that to merchandising men. John Hall, the father of cast
iron mechanical banks, included the names The Tammany Bank and Race Course
Toy Bank in the papers patenting these items. James Butler christened one of
his the Panorama Bank and it is still known by this name, although another
title might have been more appropriate. Many banks have wording cast into
them and it is generally by this name that they are known, rather than by
the name given by the jobber or patentee. Darktown Battery was called
Baseball Bank by L. H. Mace & Co. in their 1894 catalogue. Calamity was
intended to be called Football Bank by its patentee, James N. Bowen. In the
original patent papers, Russel Frisbie, head of J. & E. Stevens Co.,
specifically calls his bank "William Tell", but Selchow & Righter called it
Tyrolese Bank in their jobbers' catalogue. We now know it by its original
name. The Trolley Bank, as we call it, has Motor Bank cast in the side. The
patentee, A. G. Rex, showed it that way and Conway Bros., jobbers, called it
Motor Bank. Hobbyists changed its name because it looks like a trolley car,
yet to have left it would have made identification simpler.
Frequently it is difficult to know what bank is intended from just the
name, particularly if it is the wrong one. It is best to include a brief
description of the action of the bank when corresponding. Some day one of
you may have the experience of discovering a hitherto unknown bank and the
pleasure of naming it yourself.
Pretty colors and unusual designs interest many people in mechanical
banks. Possession of a truly scarce item pleases others. Persons seeing
banks for the first time enjoy the clever antics of the figures and when
shown one in operation say, "Oh, let me see what it does again." Not what
they do, but how they do it, is the aspect that intrigues me. The
mechanics are designed with simplicity and ingenuity. Very few are complex,
the majority of the banks performing their unusual antics with a minimum of
I feel that the most mechanically ingenious and complex of all the
banks is the Girl Skipping Rope. To permit the coin to be inserted, a lever
is depressed and the figure of a girl goes through the motions of jumping
rope, moving her head from side to side and her feet back and forth. It took
James H. Bowen about 2000 words and 2 pictures to describe it to the U.S.
Patent Office, but I need not be that explicit.
The bank is "set" by a crank, and pushing a lever permits a strong
spring to spin a fly-wheel. The bow-shaped rope is attached to a wheel which
gets its motion by friction from the fly-wheel. As the point where the hands
are fastened is different from that where the rope is attached, the girl
moves up and down as the rope spins. The legs are fastened by a crankshaft
arrangement and the head by a kicking device to the shaft through the hands.
When set in motion, this bank gives a most realistic representation of the
Perhaps the simplest yet cleverest in design is the Boy on Trapeze.
This bank shows a boy, his foot attached to a ball, straddling a horizontal
bar. When a coin is placed in a slot in his cap, the weight of the coin
causes the boy to rotate on the bar. A penny turns him once, a nickel makes
him spin twice, and a quarter three times. Perfect balance! The result of
considerable experimentation and careful workmanship.
A bank passed through many steps before it was finally sold to some
doting parent for the education and pleasure of his child. The designer
first made a solid model in specially prepared wax. From this a plaster of
paris mold in two halves was taken. Then wax hollow models are made. The
next step is to separate from the complete model the parts which are to be
movable and fashion a fresh model in wax of each part with an end or joint
attached. From the completed wax working model a brass working model is
founded. This model is smoothed, perfected and then sent to the iron foundry
where the finished banks are produced. The manufacturers then painted and
boxed the banks and sold them to jobbers for distribution to retailers,
where they might be purchased by the public.
Relatively little has been written on the subject of mechanical banks.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, 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 1869. 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.
Bailey of Cobalt, Connecticut, both of whose banks were made by the J. & E.
Stevens Company. Many banks for which patents were obtained were never
commercially manufactured; consequently, caution must be used when studying
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
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 sane 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 will soon be 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.
All in all, collecting these gadgets, as they're sometimes
disrespectfully called, is a fascinating avocation. The methods collectors
use in locating them (and the occasional somewhat nefarious ruses used by
antique dealers in exacting unfair prices) is a story in itself. So, also is
the knowledge needed to detect frauds - but fortunately there are few of
these. Meanwhile, a very pleasant mechanical bank collectors fraternity,
with fellow members in many and distant points, might well be said to exist.