From the Collections: Whimsical Mechanical Banks

20, April 2015
mechanical bank with a girl and her dogCast iron mechanical bank made by the Shepard Hardware Company between 1880 and 1890. Missouri History Museum.

Cast iron mechanical banks became popular in the 19th century after the Civil War. During the war the Union and Confederate sides began creating their own paper money to help deal with the shortage on coins. However, the public was leery of the new currency due to its lack of intrinsic value. Coins would retain some value due to the metal, regardless of whatever occurred within the government. Penny banks were meant to educate children about the importance of being thrifty through the use of a fun and exciting toy. While the encouragement of saving money was meant to be educational, the hoarding of coins in this manner contributed to the coin shortage.

Over time, these innovative toys became collector’s items. The two banks shown here were made by the Shepard Hardware Company in Buffalo, New York. The company was owned by Walter J. and Charles G. Shepard and Peter Adams. Charles was an inventor, and together he and Adams designed and patented several of the banks created by the company. Later, Adams signed over his part of the company to Walter. The company was in business from 1882 to 1892. However, during that period, they produced some of the highest-quality banks during that time.

Cast iron mechanical bank in the shape of a horse, made circa 1895. Cast iron mechanical bank in the shape of a horse, made circa 1895. Missouri History Museum.

Unlike other manufacturers of mechanical banks at the time, the Shepard Hardware Company did not use a primer before applying the finishing coat. Due to this practice it is uncommon to find their banks still in good condition. The trick pony mechanical bank was designed by Shepard and Adams in 1885. It is operated by placing a coin in the horse’s mouth and pulling a lever on the side. The lever opens the trough and lowers the horse’s head, dropping the coin through the trough and into the bank. The speaking dog mechanical bank shown above was manufactured around the same time and the paint is in very good condition. It is operated by placing a coin on the tray in the girl’s hand. When the lever on the floor is pushed, the dog opens his mouth and wags his tail as the bench seat opens and the tray tilts, dropping the coin into the seat.

The banks shown here were donated to the Museum by Isaac Long, who worked at the Mercantile Commerce Bank and Trust Company in St. Louis. He was a collector of old mechanical and still banks. Many of his banks were put on display at the Mercantile during the Sixth War Loan Drive. You can view more of our mechanical banks via our cross-collection search.

—Judy Williams, Digital Engagement Coordinator