According to ROADSHOW appraiser Noel Barrett, an antique-toy dealer in Carversville, Pennsylvania, the majority of collectible mechanical banks were manufactured around the turn of the 20th century. As Barrett also points out, they were the first American toy that was considered collectible. As a result, they passed quickly from mass market curio into the realm of antiques; and since they were made of cast iron, a good number have been preserved. The mechanical bank that Janelle brought in to the San Jose ROADSHOW in August 2009 was a beautifully preserved piece entitled "Stump Speaker" that Barrett appraised at $8,000-$12,000, and though Janelle says the bank has great sentimental value, the racist imagery, she says, "kind of makes my skin crawl."
Mechanical banks can tell us a great deal about the state of American culture in the late 1800s.
Because of their unique attributes, mechanical banks tell us a great deal about the state of American culture at the time. To make the bank an appealing article to buy and own, the image it embodied needed to be familiar to a wide swath of Americans, so the scenes were derived from populist imagery. And since the banks were sculptural, yet stylized, the prevailing attitude about the subject matter was vividly and straightforwardly illustrated, whether it was a Victorian idealization about the innocence of children, as with a famous bank that shows a girl patting her dog, to the vile racial politics of the Stump Speaker, which mocks the idea that a black man could be a politician.
Much of black Americana dates from the period during which American society was segregated by the Jim Crow laws. For a brief period after the Civil War, with black men having been granted suffrage in 1870 by the 15th Amendment, a large number of black Americans were elected to office. To restore the white monopoly on power, many Southern electorates passed laws designed to restrict the rights of blacks. The Stump Speaker bank, having been designed and manufactured during this period, reveals clearly that, two decades after the Civil War, white anxiety over the transformation of civil society still had not abated.
There are a number of other banks from the period that exhibit the widespread and legally legitimized racism that was the law of the land for a hundred years. For example, says Barrett, in a pair of banks from the same period, black characters were depicted in scenes involving mules.
In one, the character is being kicked by a mule. In another, he's eating watermelon, and is knocked off the cart by the mule, says Barrett. "If you deal in antique toys, there are a lot of racist toys. They were a constant, from the late 19th century into the 30s and 40s."
It's perverse yet true that, of the many specialties in the antiques world, it is the toy collector who comes into such frequent contact with such despicable material. Some of the most sought-after toy soldiers were made during the Nazi regime. Toy Hitlers, toy Goerrings, and tiny Nazi banners are all disturbing, but there are myriad reasons why people collect things — because of their historical significance, some personal connection, or merely because the objects may increase in value over time. "Two of the biggest collectors I know of for Nazi-era toys are Jewish," says Barrett, and also points out that Oprah Winfrey is a major collector of black Americana. Perhaps there are as many reasons to collect toys as there are toy collectors.
Whether we like it or not, the racism revealed in the Stump Speaker and in miniature Nazi rallies is part of our shared history. In collecting such toys, Barrett's customers seek not to perpetuate those attitudes, but to acknowledge their existence, exert some control over them, and ultimately deflate them. Certainly Barrett encounters people who collect such things for the wrong reasons; it's an occupational hazard. But he says they tend to lose interest once they are informed that history has turned against them, and that the objects that once embodied their own narrow views have become enduring repudiations of them.