Antique mechanical banks make the act of saving money fun. Insert a coin, push a lever, and watch the action play out! The coin might be fired into a fort from a canon, placed into an animal's mouth before being swallowed, or put in a man's hand for him to slide into his pocket. Other mechanical-bank actions prompted human and animal figures to kick, jump, dance, and do headstands.

Unlike a still bank, a mechanical bank is defined as a toy bank wherein a coin is deposited by a mechanical process. Some people also collect "semi-mechanical banks," whose features include ringing bells or the release of all collected small change once a certain amount has been deposited. The latter are known as "registering banks." Another collecting subset focuses on contraptions that were designed and developed but never made it to production—these are known as "conceptual banks."

Mechanical banks were first manufactured in the late 1800s, as the middle class emerged and grew in prosperity during the Industrial Revolution. Hence, the concept of earning and saving money became more and more important, particularly as a value to impart to children. At the same time, Victorian Era tinkerers were experimenting with mechanical technology, including spring-driven and windup devices.

The era also saw a shift in how toys were made. Originally crafted out of wood and cloth, more and more toys were fabricated out of cast-iron and mass-produced in factories, giving their adult creators a chance to express their commentaries on daily life.

James Serrill patented the first U.S. mechanical bank in early 1869. Called Bureau, this simple wooden device required the user to place a coin in a drawer. When the drawer was closed, the coin was deposited into the holding compartment inside. The same year, the first patent was issued for a cast-iron mechanical bank, Hall's Excelsior. In that device, a coin was placed on a cashier's desk on top of the bank, and the weight of the coin caused the figure to drop into the bank building below.

The time between 1869 and 1930 is known as the golden age of cast-iron mechanical banks. In America, most of them were manufactured by three companies: J. & E. Stevens Co. of Cromwell, Connecticut; Shepard Hardware Co. of Buffalo, New York; and Kyser & Rex Co. of Frankford, Pennsylvania. In Europe, similar banks were made by tin-toy manufacturers such as Bing and Saalheimer & Strauss, who also made tin windup model cars, toy trains, and toy motorcycles.

One of the most troubling aspects about mechanical banks is how often they resorted to racist caricatures. African Americans, Native Americans, and Chinese people were routinely ...

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and '70s, such caricatures fell out of favor with collectors, but today these mechanical banks are hot items again—perhaps because the racist imagery is so shocking to modern eyes. In fact, these sorts of banks are widely reproduced by counterfeiters. For example, cheap Taiwanese knockoffs of the African Bank are common, and can be purchased in the United States for $15-$25.

Aside from conveying the commonly accepted racial prejudices and stereotypes of the day, mechanical banks also served as political satire, particularly about business and corruption.

One of the most common cast-iron banks was known as the 1873 Tammany Bank, named after Tammany Hall, the headquarters to the New York County Democratic Executive Committee. The Tammany Bank featured a "little fat man," who deposited a coin in his pocket, mocking the kickbacks taken by America's most corrupt politician William "Boss" Tweed, who brought New York City to the brink of bankruptcy in the late 1860s.

The Bread-Winners Bank, designed in 1886 and inspired by John Hay's 1883 book, "Bread-Winners," about the conflicts between monopolies and labor, is a particularly fascinating example. One side represented monopoly, with a "rascal" holding a club. To his right was a money bag with "boodle" or a crooked politician emerging out of it. The other side featured a worker holding a hammer over the loaf of bread that holds the coins.

The action of the bank required the saver to place a coin in the rascal's club and flip a lever so the laborer struck the club, sending the money into the worker's "bread" and the rascal into the air. It represented labor delivering a blow to monopoly, dislodging corrupt money, and redistributing it to the workers.

Other banks were less politically charged. The famous story of President Theodore Roosevelt sparing a bear cub during a 1907 hunting trip, which was the inspiration for the teddy bear, also led to a mechanical bank. In the Teddy and the Bear Bank, the president shoots a coin into a tree stump, and a surprised bear pops out of its top.

Some banks, though, were simply intended to convey the wonder and innocence of childhood, like the Speaking Dog Bank and Girl Skipping Rope Bank. The Alligator in Trough Bank required blowing and sucking on a pipe to make an alligator emerge from its den to snatch a coin. Depositing a coin into the Clown on Globe bank prompted a clown to dance and do a headstand. The Bill E. Grin bust bank was a spoof of the Billiken, the Chinese god that watches over children and brings good luck.

Other popular banks featured scouts raising a flag (Boy Scout Bank), a monkey springing toward an organ grinder (Monkey Bank), Punch hitting Judy, a dentist extracting a tooth (Dentist Bank), a frog leaping out of a pond (Chief Big Moon Bank), William Tell firing a gun, a moving merry-go-round, and even sound, using the same player-piano technology used in music boxes. There were also antique mechanical banks that resembled vending machines, scales, or cash registers, and some even had built-in clocks.

For anyone interested in collecting antique mechanical banks, it's important to know about reproductions. In addition to the contemporary repros of the African Bank, banks from the 1800s were reproduced in the 1930s. Today, even those, which are difficult to distinguish from their Victorian originals, can go for three or four figures, as the originals are prohibitively expensive for most collectors.

In the '50s, a company called Book of Knowledge produced 20 legitimate replicas of antique mechanical banks. These were clearly labeled and never intended to fool collectors—like the reproductions from the 1930s, they are now collectible, worth hundreds of dollars. Today, specialty companies in the United States are producing top-notch limited-edition mechanical banks of their own design, which are also valued by collectors.

To identify banks made after the '30s, appraisers look at the finish—pre-'30s cast-iron banks have smoother surfaces, and the painting on earlier banks tends to be more detailed. Another technique involves tracing the base and comparing it to the documented base size of the originals; reproductions tend to be a hair smaller than the antiques.

It is generally accepted that most antique mechanical banks will require some repair to work properly, as springs tend to corrode or break over time. Certain banks, like Two Frogs, have vulnerable parts that are usually broken off, and it is acceptable to replace them. It is also common for early banks to have hairline cracks in the iron, crazing in the paint, and paint that's flaked or faded. Cosmetic repairs, though, are usually discouraged.

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