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Mechanical Banks Inspire Nostalgia

In this day and age, the idea of saving pennies seems quaint.

But a penny bank was one of the most common children’s gifts throughout the Victorian age. Up until the 1950s penny banks and piggy banks remained popular as a way to teach thrift to youngsters.

About the time of the Industrial Revolution, saving coins became entertainment as a fascinating new gadget made its appearance — the mechanical bank. Still considered by collectors one of the outstanding products produced in this era, mechanical banks are enthusiastically collected by thousands of fans all over the world.

Mechanical banks were preceded by pottery, glass or tin banks. Even famous companies like Sandwich Glass Works produced unique blown glass banks for special occasions. These glass banks are uncommon and usually seen only in museums or in the inventory of a very serious collector.

But mechanical banks were available to the average person, who might want to buy a gift that encouraged the habit of saving. And what fun they are to watch even today.

According to an 1898 column in the Chicago Tribune, these banks might have been a bit too enticing to watch since, “the iron banks … decoy poor, defenseless little children into dropping their hard-begged for pennies therein to see them work.”

The mechanical banks in today’s column include two cast iron banks that date from the late 1800s.

One is modeled in the image of a well-dressed man, with slick hair and mustache, who is seated in an easy chair. When offered a coin, this gentleman takes the penny in his hand and slips it inside his jacket, nodding his head thanks as he completes the act.

Referred to as “Tammany,” the mechanical bank by J. & E. Stevens Co., was first marketed in the 1870s at a time when Boss Tweed and New York City’s Tammany politicians were making headlines everywhere.

The political scandal fueled the production of this bank with its representation of a politician taking a bribe. It was widely produced.

Once the scandal settled down, the Stevens Company changed the name of the popular bank and called it “Fat Man” allowing the bank to be produced and purchased for 45 years straight. Wearing a yellow vest, gray pants and black jacket, this mechanical man is still entertaining to watch as he smoothly pockets the change inside his coat and nods.

Now worth hundreds of dollars, this is one bank that is still attractive to adults and children alike and gets a laugh as a political statement.

The second mechanical bank shown today is an old owl bank. The action in this mechanical occurs when the coin is placed on the owl’s shoulder which causes the owl head to swivel and the coin to drop. The drop is caused by the weight of the coin.

Design and engineering were tops in the field of mechanical banks and there are several categories in the collecting realm of these treasures. Some of the most elaborate are those designed as a horse race, a Punch and Judy Show, a bowling alley, or good old Uncle Sam.

Amazingly about 3,000 have been identified by collectors and described in collector books on the subject of banks.

According to Schroeder’s Price Guide, the most collectible examples were made from 1870-1900 however, they continued to be made right up until the early days of World War II. J. & E. Stevens, Shepard Hardware, and Kyser and Rex are some of the best-known manufacturers of mechanical banks.

Perhaps most amusing to collectors today is the slice-of-life flavor of these vintage banks. Reflecting the social, political, humorous side of their times, these banks also are good examples of everyday life. Topics as diverse as circus life to political graft were represented by these cast iron marvels.

Always popular at auctions, antique shops and online, mechanical banks are guaranteed conversation pieces. Like all antiques, condition is vital to value and paint is especially important along with working condition.

Buyers should also be careful to buy from reliable sources due to the prevalence of reproductions.

But watching a genuine antique mechanical bank smoothly operate takes you back to a time when amusement was as simple as dropping a penny into a slot.

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