The J. & E. Stevens Co.
On numerous occasions individuals have approached the writer as to when he was going to do a complete book on mechanical banks, as to when he was going to write a book or more articles on cast iron toys, and when he would write about some of his more personal experiences in collecting banks and toys over the years.
Well right now the writer is bedded down with a bad case of flu, and this months article is overdue. So this will be an opportune time for a discussion about the writers experiences at the J. & E. Stevens Company. This is well in keeping and follows through with last months writeup on Baileys banks.
The J. & E. Stevens Company of Cromwell, Conn., manufactured approximately one-third of all the known different mechanical banks. They were the most important factor in the mechanical bank era, and their banks are among the finest, most attractive, and best made. They were the pioneers in this field and made the first known dated cast iron mechanical bank. This is the Halls Excelsior of 1869. A tin alligator type toy was made by another company a couple of years earlier, but this is not a mechanical bank as some people think. It is merely a toy that employed the use of a coin in its action. The coin was never deposited in any fashion and no receptacle existed that would hold coins. The Alligator is an interesting toy in itself but cannot be classed as a mechanical bank. So Stevens made the earliest known dated mechanical bank, and after all the years of intensive collecting it is very unlikely that any earlier dated bank is going to turn up.
The writer over a period of years spent considerable time at the Stevens Company and fortunately most of this time was in the 1930s and up until about 1940. He would drive down to Cromwell, Conn., on occasional weekends and stay in the area. One of the most convenient times to look around the place in those days was on Saturday afternoons. The writer, in time, became very friendly with the Superintendent, Mr. Russell Frisbie, who was most kind in eventually permitting him to just about have the run of the place. Mr. Frisbie had his own set of keys for all the buildings and rooms for the entire Stevens set-up and he would give these to the writer and tell him to go ahead and enjoy himself.
The Stevens layout was located in most attractive surroundings just on the outskirts of Cromwell. A pond was beside several of the buildings and, as we understood it, was loaded with fish. Never got to try the fishing, however, as always too interested in learning all that could be learned about banks and toys. There were several particularly interesting rooms in the buildings and one of considerable interest that was always kept locked was called the pattern makers room. In this room underneath a large work counter were many mechanical bank parts and toy pistol parts, all carved in wood. The workmanship on these wood pattern parts was extremely well done and the writer spent considerable time going over all the different parts and studying them, and in some cases complete banks and pistols were found. In other sections of the same building containing the pattern room there were barrels and barrels of cast iron mechanical bank parts which had been setting around for years. There were parts for the Jolly Nigger, Spise A Mule, Artillery Bank, and numbers of others.
The foundry was a separate brick building in itself and the writer was fortunate in being able to talk to some of the old timers there who had worked on banks such as the Girl Skipping Rope. This, according to one old foundryman in particular, was the most difficult item they ever produced since it was almost impossible to get perfect castings of this bank as it was so ornate. The molten iron would not flow into the mold completely.
Another building, adjacent to the foundry, was used for painting the banks, and this was all handwork. During the time they were actively manufacturing mechanical banks women were generally employed for the purpose of painting the banks. One would specialize in eyes and eyebrows, for example, another in clothing, and so on, and it was more or less done on an assembly line basis, each bank going down the line and paint applied to certain parts by each individual. The fact that women did most of the painting is one reason that the Stevens banks have such a nice appearance about them, good facial definition, and, generally speaking, a better type of paint job.
Another one of the old buildings contained stacks and stacks of original bronze and brass patterns of many mechanical banks, and the writer spent endless hours studying these. Another building adjacent to this had a number of samples of different toy pistols and other things they had made, as well as some experimental parts and pieces of various banks, including some which were probably never produced.
In the main office building there was a large safe and on top of this safe sat an original Patronize The Blind Man And His Dog. This was one of the banks that had been found tucked away up on a rafter in the building where the painting was done. There was a mistake in the painting and the woman who had done this had apparently just hidden it away. In any event, Mr. Frisbie kept this bank setting on top of the safe as a memento of the days when they were so active in the field of mechanical banks. In a room to the left of the main office there were quantities of old literature and papers stacked up from long years past and the writer spent considerable time here also going through these papers and learning much interesting information as to the background of the Stevens Company and their activities in mechanical banks.
The writer mentioned it was fortunate he was able to spend time at the Stevens Company prior to 1940. In the first place not too many people had been through the place to any great extent previous to this time and then, of course, World War II came along and, as the writer was given to understand, many patterns and various other things that had been lying around for years were melted up, destroyed, or otherwise disposed of. Fortunately there were paper materials that were securely packed away and more or less hidden which survived the war period, and some of this came to light after 1950. The writer had been out of touch with the Stevens Company for something over 15 years and on a trip there in the middle 50s he learned that some rather interesting material which had survived had unfortunately gotten scattered around a bit. In any event, the place had changed considerably from the period of the writers activity prior to 1940 and it is of great benefit to have this early actual background experience with the company when it was more or less the same as in their active days of producing banks.
One speaks of writing a book on mechanical banks and its a little difficult to know where to begin when, as a matter of fact, there is more than enough interesting information on the Stevens Company and their activities to almost fill a book. There did not seem to be too much material available prior to 1890 but some did turn up and the writer has slowly but surely gotten together material prior to this date and has built up a collection of Stevens Catalogs which starts with one of their earliest known catalogs of 1859 to one dated 1926.
Well so much for Stevens for now and at some future date we will pass along more information concerning the company, possibly in book form. There is much to be said about the Stevens Company and their importance in the mechanical bank era.