J.K. from the 805 area sends me this photograph of two toy iron banks. The concept of a place to save money which is a toy and also decorative is an American invention. After all, we were taught as youngsters to “save our pennies.” And because pennies are “starter” money (or they were back in the day) we remember good old Ben Franklin’s adage “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Do we really believe that these days? I don’t think we do and as a reflection of that, more of us with young kids probably don’t give Piggy Banks for birthday presents anymore. In fact, as a kid’s toy, banks are a thing of the antique past.
This wasn’t always the case. One of the highest value banks is the little cast iron donkey used in FDR’s “Dimes for Dimes” campaign against childhood polio. I remember my big pink plastic piggy bank in my pink bedroom in Illinois. I felt powerful when I felt it get heavy with coinage. In fact, money saved meant kid-power. Toy banks represent this power expressed in material figural symbols: kid’s banks, beginning in the mid 1800’s were cast in a wide variety of figures. The American toy bank manufacturer A.C. Williams made many animal figure banks, a veritable menagerie of camels, dogs, cats, lions, buffaloes, owls, frogs, cows, bears, rabbits and even elk and turkey. The tradition of money held by an auspicious animal is ages old, in every known human culture, but many of the above-mentioned animals in A.C. William’s menagerie are not auspicious, for example, the turkey, which has “stupid” connotations. And what does saving money in a jackass connote? Money sends mixed messages.
What, for example, do pigs save? The pig was the most popular bank: dogs save bones, camels save water, squirrels tuck away nuts, donkeys are saddled with treasure, but what do pigs save? Language is the key here: Medieval England had a term for cheap clay called pygg. Money was hidden in cheap clay pots for centuries. (Mom back in Illinois kept change in our cookie jar.) One of the most expensive pygy banks ever made, according to the Still Bank Collectors Club of American (they hold an annual convention believe it or not), was produced by Wade of England in 1955. Wade’s “Woody” pig was glazed with 22-karat gold leaf, made in an edition of only 25, and presented to British Natwest Bank’s Board of Directors; today each one is worth $1500. The jump from a pygy pot to a piggy pot was not a long hurdle.
Giving banks, such as J.K.’s, to children, in the form of Well’s Fargo safe boxes, sent a message to kids. These banks echoed the zeitgeist of the American robber-baron times with their symbolic form. Lock away your earthly treasures! You can see the gold but you can’t touch. From post-Civil War until the 1950’s pygy banks achieved incredible popularity as gifts for children. Today such video “savings games” such as T. Ron Price’s Disney World’s “The Great Pygy Bank Adventure” encourage children to save money so they can then buy “cool stuff.” What once was a bank pictured as a wagon trainer train safe encouraged a former generation of good capitalists to lock up treasures. Today our good young capitalists are urged to spend.
Banks in the form of a bank safe, such as J.K.’s are intriguing because of the implied message, and the possible names of J.K.’s banks tell the story. Safe-shaped banks were named “The Roller,” “Grand Jewel,” “Rival Bank,” “Young American” and “Uncle Sam Security.” The trend, likewise, in the _____________ middleclass homes in 1880-1910 was to install huge iron safes in basements, so the paranoia trickled down to the kids. And today, no sane adult would buy any bank named “Uncle Sam Security.”
J.K., your banks are collectible and worth $200 each to a still bank collector. Think of it, you could actually use it for something, even though the fashion for saving money is “antique” as well.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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