by Dr. Lori Verderame
Mechanical banks were introduced in the late 19th Century in an effort to make the act of saving money fun. These banks were made to be like toys. Somewhat similar to wind-up toys and other playthings, some mechanical banks had moving parts, springs, levers, and colorful characters to entice saving money.
In 1869, the first American mechanical bank was in the form of a bureau. It was patented by its inventor, James Serrill. During the heyday of mechanical banks, circa 1870-1930, most banks were made of cast iron. Cast iron banks were introduced about the same time period as cast iron toys.
Banks and American Culture
The subjects or themes of mechanical banks referenced contemporary topics like the lifestyle of the wealthy in the Gilded Age, kickbacks taken by corrupt politicians, the role of monopolies in business, etc. Mechanical banks highlighted famous figures like President Teddy Roosevelt’s expeditions hunting wild game. A famous bank featuring Roosevelt had the President shooting a coin at a tree and a bear popping out of the tree. The tree served as the bank. Various members of ethnic groups were characterized in mechanical banks such as Native Americans, African Americans, Asians, etc. Lastly, mechanical banks focused on popular comic strip characters like Punch and Judy or events of everyday life including dogs barking, girls dancing, etc.
Condition and Value
Condition is really important when it comes to mechanical banks. Repairs are common because these banks have moving parts that age and wear over time. Repairs impact the value of mechanical banks but collectors are not swayed just because your bank was reworked.
If they are over painted with acrylic paint, then the mechanical bank is not worth as much as if it were left alone even with flaking original paint. Resist the temptation to repaint your mechanical bank.
What to Look For
Look for American-made mechanical banks produced by the Shepard Hardware Company, Kyser and Rex, or J & E Stevens Company since these firms produced the greatest number of cast iron mechanical banks during the early 1900s.
The surface of the cast iron is a tell tale sign of age and authenticity when assessing a mechanical bank. Cast iron from the turn of the century has a smooth surface and highly detailed forms cast in the iron.
While mechanical banks are popular collectibles, there are many, oh so many, fakes and reproductions. There are some authentic, period mechanical banks that have sold for nearly $250,000. So it really pays off to know if you have a fake or the real thing. And, what’s more interesting is that some of the reproductions are worth a pretty penny too. Yes, even the newer reproduced mechanical banks can command very high prices in the antiques market. It is tricky to tell the difference between an authentic mechanical bank, a fake, and a later reproduction.
Get an online appraisal of your mechanical bank from Dr. Lori