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Edwin H. Mosler collects Mechanical Banks
     Scroll down for page scans and captions
     that include photos of the banks 1977.

 

Banks

Making a Game of Moneysaving

 

     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.
    
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 day 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.
     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 manufactured 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. 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 a 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 days 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 anti-Black 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 the 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. 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 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 bank's 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.
 
MUSEUMS
     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

 

BOOKS
     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: Mechanical, Stills
     by Larry Freeman
     Century House., Inc., 1960

 

     Warman, Edwin G.
     Mechanicals and Stills Price Guide
    
E. G. Warman, 1975


Girl Skipping Rope was regarded by workers who made it as one of their more difficult assignments, requiring an intricate, multipiece casting. It is the official symbol of the collectors society, the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America. The bank was designed and patented by J. H. Bowen of Philadelphia in 1890, and was made by the J & E Stevens Manufacturing Company of Cromwell, Connecticut.


The Clown and Globe bank, which dates from around 1890, was produced in great quantity and is relatively easy to find. When activated, the clown performs a handstand.


The Lady Columbine, a stock pantomime character, dances around a clown and her partner, Harlequin, on this 1906 bank.
 

In this Mikado bank a Japanese figure moves the coin between cymbals, as in a shell game, and always wins for the bank. 

 
Portraying a Biblical tale, the great whale on this 1890 pedestal bank coughs up a happy Jonah on receipt of a coin.


 
The teller on this rare Freedman's bank of the post-Civil War era thumbs his nose while he takes the money.

 

As the ticket man stands by the coin slot, the five animals on this 1890s Merry-Go-Round bank journey in an endless circle.

 

In this Little Red Riding Hood bank, Grandma's mask falls away when the coin drops in, revealing the wicked wolf.

 

The craze for roller-skating contests inspired this rare turn-of-the-century bank on which a girl wins the prize wreath.



 
This bank shows the infamous William Tweed, boss of the Tammany Hall, the political club that ruled New York City in the 19th Century and milked millions from public funds. The bank is operated by handing Tweed a coin. He then pockets it while nodding his thanks. A clue to the age of the Tammany bank, invented by Russel Frisbie, is provided by patent drawings issued in 1875. Accompanied by an explanation of the mechanism, they were meant to prevent copying, a common practice in the freebooting days of the late 19th Century.



Three stages in the manufacture of a cast-iron bank are illustrated above for William Tell bank, in which the legendary archer shoots an apple off his son's head when a penny is dropped into the castle. In the first step a master pattern is carved of wood (bottom), which is used to make a reverse mold of the pattern in sand. The mold is used to cast a second pattern of brass (top), and from this brass pattern a second mold is made of sand or plaster of paris. The second mold is used in casting the finished product in iron (center).



On the Darktown Battery bank, the pitcher throws a penny at the batter, who swings but has not made a hit in 111 years. The catcher then drops the coin into a slot in his chest. Racist and ethnic prejudices often crept into the characterization of such figures.

 

Called the Calamity bank, this portrayal of an unsuccessful play in a football game is filled with action. When the coin is dropped, the ball carrier turns from the position at left and leans forward to run upfield. But the tacklers also turn and stop the runner for no gain.



Unlike most mechanical banks, in which the action is unvaryingly repeated, this 1871 race-track bank has two horses that are started off by the unpredictable motion of a spring. In the ensuing dash around the track, either horse may win.
 

The Fowler bank's lifelike imitation of a hunting scene includes a bird that "flies" out on a string when a coin is inserted. The bird is realistically brought down by the hunter with a gun that fires caps.

 

When a coin is put into this 1879 bank, the bowler releases the ball, which knocks down the pins and rings a bell. Because of its movable ball and 10 small pins it is hard to find this bank intact.



A modern version of an old idea is Bicentennial Betsy Ross Bank. When a lever is pressed, Betsy turns to her sewing basket.
 

Much of the craftsmanship commonplace in 19th Century banks is lacking in this modern bank, which capitalizes on the 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. The figures are less finely detailed, the casting less smooth and the joints less carefully fitted.

 

This pineapple-head bank, issued to mark the entry of Hawaii into the Union as the 50th state in 1959, uses a mechanism common to many banks. It is activated by a lever in the back when a coin is placed in its hand. The coin is brought to the mouth and swallowed.



The only President known to be immortalized in a cast-iron mechanical bank is Theodore Roosevelt. In this bank, a bear's head appears at the top of the tree when Teddy fires a penny into the trunk.

 

Typical of mechanical banks that, a century ago, ridiculed minorities are these, in which an obsequious black tips his hat, a shanty Irishman cuddles his pig, and an indolent Chinese cardplayer with four aces in his hand smiles inscrutably. All three are from the 1880s.

 

The Bismarck bank pokes none-too-sly fun at the German Chancellor, who put an import restriction on American pork products. In this retaliatory design Bismarck's head pops out of the body of a pig when a coin is put into the slot and the pig's tail is pushed down.



Lighter and simpler than cast-iron banks, these German banks from the 1920's and 1930's are lithographed tin. The figures' jaws drop when a coin is inserted. From the left, they are the British Lion, a bulldog, a teddy bear, an African native and film star Harold Lloyd.

 

A deposit in this 19th Century German bank brings a quick dividend: a piece of candy.

 

The Ding Dong Bell bank of 1880s provides a 20-second show. When a coin is inserted, one boy rings a bell, Another, on the fence, waves his hat while a third pulls a cat from a well.


 
An enduring favorite, the Trick Dog bank has been reproduced in a number of variations through the years. It is activated by a lever when a penny is put into the dog's mouth. The dog then executes a leap through the clown's hoop and deposits the coin in the barrel. At upper right is a modern version of this complicated circus act, in plastic; the other four examples are older. The original model (top row, center) was introduced by the Hubley Manufacturing Company in 1888; the other three are 19th Century imitations of it.

 

Girl Skipping Rope was regarded by workers who made it as one of their more difficult assignments, requiring an intricate, multi-piece casting. It is the official symbol of the collectors society, the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America. The bank was designed and patented by J. H. Bowen of Philadelphia in 1890, and was made by the J & E Stevens Manufacturing Company of Cromwell, Connecticut.


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