Cowan's Corner

Collectors Bank On Mechanical Toys

By Wes Cowan and Ted Sunderhaus

Mechanical banks were originally created to appeal to children and teach them the importance of saving. Their popularity caught on quickly among both children and adults, and these banks have remained very collectible since the mid-1800s.

Each bank is designed to perform a specific action when the owner drops in a coin and pulls the lever. The banks often depicted cartoon characters and historical figures. People are most familiar with the cast iron-type bank. A great example of this is Chief Big Moon by the J. & E. Stevens Company from Connecticut. The bank features a male Indian holding a fish in front of a frog. When the bank is activated, the frog leaps up to catch the fish.

The often ingenious cast iron banks were made mainly in the United States and Great Britain. Companies like J. & E. Stevens Company, Hubley Manufactur-ing Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the Kilgore Manufacturing Company of Westerville, Ohio, and Shepard Hardware Company of Buffalo, New York, are some of the most well known manufacturers of the cast iron mechanical banks.

Pressed tin mechanical banks are often overlooked, yet they can be just as collectible. Many were made in Europe and typically came out of Germany. The latter part of the 19th century was the heyday of this type of bank in Europe. One of the best-known companies to make pressed tin mechanical banks was Selhumer & Strauss in Germany. They made a large variety of banks, many with the same general patterns and different characters.

American companies also made pressed tin mechanical banks, although many were made slightly later, in the first quarter of the 20th century. A few companies that were known for their fine chromolithographed tin mechanical toys also made mechanical tin banks. A few great examples are the J. Chein Company of New York City and the Buddy L. Toy Company of East Moline, Illinois.

The characters depicted by these banks range from African-American characters and clowns to more full-figured characters and animals, like monkeys and owls. A recognizable character is quite collectible, including Selhumer & Strauss's bank depicting the ever-popular Mickey Mouse.

Lithographed Tin mechanical bank by Calumet Baking Powder Company, estimated at $100-$200.

Even companies that did not make toys made this type of bank to promote their brand. The Calumet Baking Powder Company made a can-shaped bank with a little boy on top that moved back forth when activated. The Lampson-Hyck Watch Company out of Toledo, Ohio, made a working "Watch" bank.

Due to the more fragile nature of the material, these stamped tin banks are actually harder to find with good paint and in working order than the more familiar cast iron examples.

Much more research is needed to discover the makers of a number of the intricately-made European and American tin mechanical banks. Their popularity has remained so strong that they are still being made today, although most are now made in China.

About the author: Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan's Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at

Scarce Selhumer & Strauss chromolithograph tin mechanical bank sold in January 2008 for $540.

Stump Speaker made by Shepard Hardware Company sold recently for $900.

Chromolithograph Tin Monkey
mechanical bank, $330.

Chief Big Moon by J. & E. Stevens Co. sold in 2004 for $2,530.





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