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The History of Mechanical Toy Banks


While I was in Vermont last week, my family and I visited the Shelburne Museum. One of the displays that captured my attention was dedicated to old cast iron mechanical banks. I’m sure many of you have seen these things. They come in a variety of forms- from clowns to baseball players. All mechanical banks work on the same two principles: the weight of the deposited coin causes an action to begin or a person pulls a lever that sets the bank in motion.


Mechanical toy banks grew in popularity between 1870 and 1930. The two biggest firms that manufactured mechanical banks were Stevens and W.J. Shepard. After the creation of the first charted savings bank in New York City in 1819, thrift became a national policy. Manufactures felt that mechanical toy banks could help instill that ideal in children. Consequently, most mechanical banks have themes geared towards children such as sports and the circus. However, several mechanical banks illustrated controversial political and social subjects. You’ll find many of the bank designs mirroring the racism of the time by depicting African Americans in offensive stereotypes.


As a kid, I thought old cast iron toy banks were pretty cool. To me, they represent a unique part of Americana. I was happy to see a museum working to preserve this part of our country’s financial history.

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