Cast-iron toy coin banks are recognized as some of the most successful mass-produced products of the 19th century. By adding a simple mechanical component, toy banks became a novelty and an immediate success.
Toy designers devised mechanical banks with captivating actions that served to amuse as well as to promote the concept of thrift. The banks reflected social and political attitudes of the times and humorous happenings.
American toymakers mastered the intricacies of cast iron in the second half of the 19th century. The first toy banks appeared in the versatile alloy about 1869.
Sand casting was the preferred method for cast-iron mechanical banks, beginning in the 1870s.
In short, sand casting is just as it sounds. Create a pattern of wood, clay or heat-resistant plastic (more contemporary use) and create a mold within fine-grain sand tightly packed in two separate parts: a cope (top half) and a drag (bottom half). Remove the pattern, close and seal the two molds and fill the space with molten iron through specially created runners and feeders. Let cool. Remove the mold to revel a solidified iron casting. The separate castings are then pieced together, edges are smoothed out, and details are added either by hand-painting or dipping.
Two basic types of toy banks were produced between 1870 and the 1920s. A still bank is best described as the plain “piggy” bank, having no mechanical function. Still banks come in all kinds of shapes and materials, and depict just about anything. While still banks are collectible in their own right, it is the mechanical bank that has proven the most popular and valuable.
The most collectible mechanical banks were made from 1870 to 1900, however, they continued to be made through the Depression era. Unfortunately for collectors, by the 1930s, mechanical banks were being reproduced well after the originals were cast. Foundries were recreating many of the earlier banks using the originals as the new patterns. What they were reproducing, though, was nowhere near the quality of the originals.
When inspecting a mechanical bank, one will find that the parts of a reproduction will not fit together as well as those of an original. The edges aren’t as smooth. The metal also has a rougher feel from the use of rougher sand in the casting. Paint may be sprayed on instead of dipped, and will flake off instead of chipping off as originals may do. Details of wheel spokes, for example, will show trimmings that weren’t sanded down as the originals would have been. Most importantly, repros may have contemporary fittings such as Phillips screws, pins, nuts and bolts that stand out rather than having fasteners molded into the parts. If the paint over the fastener doesn’t match the surrounding area, it is quite likely to be a contemporary reproduction, experts say.
Lastly, a reproduction is made from the mold of the original, so it will have a slightly smaller footprint. This is because cast iron will shrink a bit after casting, about one-eighth of an inch or so.
Early mechanical banks, with their superior quality and craftsmanship, can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Contemporary reproductions sell for significantly less. When considering the purchase of a mechanical bank, you should ask the seller to allow you to look inside to see how the component parts fit together, what types of fasteners were used and whether or not the paint is evenly distributed.
A great resource for collectors is the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America. Visit their website at www.mechanicalbanks.org. The more you learn about mechanical banks, the more informed and confident you will be as a collector. And that is advice you can take to the bank.