Toys, and particularly “banks” (novelty money boxes), made of cast iron are almost exclusively American. Banks became popular shortly after the Civil War to hoard coins saved in response to low value of paper money printed during the War.
In 1870, John Hall patented one of first mechanical (rather than “still”) banks. His Excelsior Bank had a hatch at the top of a bank building; when the user opened the hatch a banker popped up; when a coin was placed on the banker’s desk it disappeared inside the building.
Inventors vied with each other to produce more creative banks. By 1885, it was estimated that there were about 260 different models. The most popular mechanical banks were William Tell, Girl Skipping Rope, Harlequin, Clown and Columbine.
By the early 1900s, mechanical banks had lost their popularity but around 1920, they were rediscovered by collectors who began paying high prices for old models. This led to a new wave of banks made using mass-production techniques. The most popular was the famous Happy Nigger – a design dating back to 1877. By the end of the ‘twenties cap pistols replaced banks as the most popular cast-iron toys.
Cast iron is very durable but also brittle and easily breaks if dropped, making undamaged cast iron toys more valuable.
Did you know?
In the 15th century, dishes, pots and jars were often made from a dense, orange clay called pygg. A jar in which spare coins were kept was called a “pygg bank”. Supposedly, by the 19th century, when the term was largely forgotten, a potter asked to make a pygg bank misunderstood the request and produced a bank in the shape of a pig and started a fashion for “piggy banks”.