Wednesday, April 27, 2016
QUESTION: I’ve always liked cast-iron banks. I see them displayed on the counter at my bank—I’m sure these are reproductions. So when I discovered one that wasn’t too pricey in a local antique shop, I scooped it right up. The bank has its name, “Jonah and the Whale,” displayed in a panel underneath the figures of Jonah and the whale. How can I tell if the bank is authentic? And what can you tell me about this bank?
ANSWER: Cast-iron mechanical banks have always been a favorite of American collectors. Perhaps it’s because they recall our country’s heritage, but more likely because they’re cute in a clunky sort of way.
Collectors have sought after old mechanical banks for over 50 years because of their nostalgic look at America’s past.
Mechanical banks began to appear shortly after the end of the American Civil War and the American public was eager to purchase them. At the time, a severe coin shortage occurred because people saved them. In fact, the situation got so bad that shopkeepers had to resort to using postage stamps to make change. Both the Union and Confederate governments began issuing paper notes to supplement their coinage and help relieve this problem. But people didn’t like paper money because it could become worthless quickly. Coins, on the other hand, would always retain the value of their metallic content.
So mechanical banks became a product of the times and their popularity remained strong well into the 20th century. Not only were they fun toys, but parents could effectively use them to teach their children the practical aspects of being thrifty.
The Shepard Hardware Company of Buffalo, New York, was probably the premier maker of cast-iron mechanical banks. Walter J. and Charles G. Shepard founded their company to produce various pieces of hardware, but in 1882, they began a sideline business making cast-iron mechanical banks. Charles was an inventor.
Shepard entered into the mechanical bank field in about 1882 and available information indicates they sold out their line of toy banks in 1892. The impact Shepard had on the mechanical bank market was astounding when you consider the fact they were able to design, patent, produce, and effectively distribute 15 high quality banks within a time span of only about 10 years.
Their banks sold for $1 each, but dealers could purchase them wholesale for $8.50 a dozen, or about 70 cents each.
All Shepard banks had these common features. First, their artistic paint jobs were unsurpassed for attention to minute detail. Unfortunately, the company didn’t use any primer coating to prepare the metal for painting, so the paint eventually flaked off their banks.
Second, each Shepard bank has its name embossed on one of the casting pieces. The name is generally in large bold letters located on the front panel of the bank. Other cast-iron bank manufacturers didn’t put the names of their banks on them. This resulted in many banks becoming known by names other than the ones originally given to them by their makers.
Third, each Shepard cast-iron bank is very heavy for its size. It’s almost as if cast iron was free and had no bearing on the production cost of the items.
In all, Shepard produced 15 different banks. They have become known for two in particular—the Uncle Sam bank (discussed in my blog from July 8, 2015) and the Jonah and the Whale bank. Charles Shepard received a patent for the latter bank on July 15, 1890. The overall length of the bank was 10-1/4 inches.
Shepard decorators painted the side and end plates of the base with yellow corners, and the letters of the name in gold. They striped the edges of the bottom plate and top part of the bank in yellow and black and painted the water and waves realistically in light bluish-green with white highlighting. The whale is a dark green-black color with a red mouth and white teeth. The boat is an off shade of yellow with stripes of gold, white, blue and red. The robes on the two figures are red and blue, and they have white beards, flesh color faces and hands.
To operate the bank, a person would place a coin on the back of the figure of Jonah. Then the user would press a lever, recessed in the end plate under the rear of the boat. As the whale opened his mouth wide, the figure holding Jonah moved forward in the boat towards the whale. The figure of Jonah tilted downward as though entering the whale's mouth, but instead the coin flew off his back into the whale. Releasing the lever returned the figures in the boat to their original position. The whale’s mouth closed and re-opened as though swallowing the coin. The whale’s lower jaw continued to move up and down for several seconds after the action takes place. To remove the coins, the user would use a key to unlock a trap in the underside of the base.
In 1892, Charles and Walter Shepard sold their cast-iron savings bank business to J. & E. Stevens of Cromwell of Connecticut.
Today, original Jonah and the Whale banks bring very high prices—if they’re in mint condition. Unfortunately, most are not.