Wednesday, July 8, 2015
Saving With Uncle Sam
QUESTION: When I was a child, my father gave me an cast iron Uncle Sam bank for Christmas. I recently purchased a similar one at an antique show. It stands 10 ½ inches tall and weighs about 7 pounds. I’m not sure if it’s authentic. How can I tell if it is and what can you tell me about the history of my bank?
ANSWER: In all likelihood, the bank you bought at that antique show is a reproduction which probably dates from the early 20th century.
Peter Adams Jr. and Charles G. Shepard created the first Uncle Sam bank. But it was the Shepard Hardware Company of Buffalo, New York that produced the first one in 1886. This particular cast-iron mechanical bank features an umbrella-carrying Uncle Sam standing on a decorated base holding a suitcase. By placing a coin in his hand and pressing the knob on the box, Uncle Sam lowers his arm and puts the money into the U.S Treasury bag. The beard on his lower jaw moves as if he’s talking.
At the time it appeared on the market, the bank showed Uncle Sam, who represented the U.S. Government, taking citizens' money.
So who was Uncle Sam? The first use of the moniker “Uncle Sam” supposedly appeared during the War of 1812 in reference to Samuel Wilson, who was a meat packer who inspected meat destined for the troops. People called him Uncle Sam, and he just so happened to have the same initials as the new country.
Toy banks became popular in the United States during the 18th century after hard currency went into circulation. But it wasn’t until the early part of the 19th century that the first chartered savings bank in New York City opened its doors. Being thrifty soon became a popular trend, and people began using toy banks as a way to follow the encouraging words of Benjamin Franklin—“A penny saved is a penny earned.”
Your bank was possibly cast from an historic mold made by Shepard. If Uncle Sam’s beard moves as the coin in his spring-loaded hand drops into the U.S. Treasury bag at his feet, then your bank is authentic.
Many reproductions have been made since the first Uncle Sam bank. Those produced in the 1920s may still hold considerable value, but never as much as the original. The most recent large scale production of these banks occurred during the U.S. Bicentennial celebration in 1976. But manufacturers cut corners and didn’t make these banks from real cast iron, choosing to use a lighter, cheaper metal instead. These cheap knockoffs also had more details than the originals. While some look similar to the originals, most can be spotted by the addition of embellishments and added details.
If your bank is heavy, it’s probably an early reproduction. Also, if the paint is really bright, it most likely is a later reproduction. Some people have repainted originals, but this is a mistake and ruins their value. Some reproductions also have incorrect colors. The correct colors should be a blue full dress coat with red and white striped pants. On the bottom of the base should be the words, "PAT. JUNE 8, 1886". Most reproductions show the mark, “Made in Korea” or “Made in China.” But some reproductions only have an eagle and banners on one side. On the original they appear on both sides. The beard moves on the originals but doesn’t move on many reproductions. A modern reproduction, made in Taiwan, sells for only about $15 to $25.
The value of these banks is always dependent on their condition, but many of the originals have little paint left on them. In good working condition and with all of its original paint, an 1886 bank could be worth between $1,000 and as much $18,000.