One-of-a-kind toy bank coasts to $266,500

The only example of a cast iron mechanical bank that heretofore was known only by an ad in an 1884 catalog sold at auction in Philadelphia on Wednesday for $220,000 ($266,500 including buyer’s premium), many times the pre-sale estimate of $30,000-50,000. The Coasting Bank is considered the Impossible Black Tulip of toy bank collectors, only unlike the cartographical impossible black tulip which has a handful of surviving copies, there is only one Coasting Bank known to exist.

It was found in the attic of a home in Peebles, Scotland, of all random places, in excellent condition. The owners have no idea how it got from the US to their attic or when. The sellers too it to Lyon & Turnbull auctioneers in Edinburgh and they suggested it be sold at their partner auction house Freeman’s so it could be sold directly to American toy collectors, obviously a wise business decision.

Before 1955, even hardcore collectors had no idea it had ever existed. It was antique dealer William J. Stackhouse who ferreted it out. He was browsing a second hand shop in Norwich, New York, which was going out of business. In a pile of old magazines that were shop owner planned to throw away, Stackhouse came across a copy of the Winter 1994 issue of Ehrich’s Fashion Quarterly Wholesale Catalog, the mail order catalog of the dry goods emporium founded by the Ehrich Brothers on Eighth Avenue at 24th Street in New York City. On page 426, he found a number of advertisements for toy banks. One of them was the Coasting Bank, on sale for 95 cents. The ad describes the bank’s action:

Upon placing the sled at the top of the hill and pulling the string, the sled swiftly makes the descent until it meets an obstruction that lands the coaster on his head and deposits the coin in the bank.

An article by F.H. Griffith in the April, 1955, issue of Hobbies magazine published the discovery of the catalog and it’s double secret bank. It confirmed that there was no known example of this bank in any collection, nor is there a patent on file for it which is not surprising since many toy bank models never were patented. The other banks on the page are all real, though, and this was a catalog of inexpensive ready-made objects so if it was listed for sale, that means it had to have been produced.

Griffith noted that the mechanism bears some similarity Shoot The Chute Bank, a bank designed by Charles A. Bailey for J. & E. Stevens Company in 1906. (You can see the patent here. Stevens Co., based in Cromwell, Connecticut, was the oldest toy manufacturing company in the United States and became the number one sellers of toy banks in the country. Bailey was a toy-maker who had his own shop in the back of his Cobalt, Connecticut, house who also freelanced for J. & E. Stevens Co. He is considered a shining star in the firmament of mechanical bank designers, and in fact happens to have designed two of the other banks offered for sale on that catalog page, the Bismark Pig Bank and the German Exchange Bank. (You can’t tell from the catalog illustration because they’re trying to keep it a surprise, but the Bismark Pig Bank was so named because after you put the coin in the slot and press his tail, Otto von Bismark, “the cause of [the depositor’s] trouble,” pops out. This is a reference to the German chancellor’s blocking imports of US pork, thus causing the American pig seller’s trouble.)

In addition to the slide mechanism, the Shoot The Chute Bank and Coasting Bank also have materials — lead or white metal — and design elements — cast iron floral scrollwork on triangular coin receptacles — in common. It’s likely that the Shoot The Chute Bank was a descendant of the Coasting Bank, a second attempt to make the slide concept pay off after the first one disappeared into obscurity. I think the timing suggests it was inspired by the Shoot the Chute rides in Coney Island’s Luna Park (built in 1903) and Dreamland (built in 1904) which were the parks’ most popular rides. Bailey did note in the patent application that the figures would ride “a miniature boat or toboggan” down the chute and the production model looks more boat-like

If that was his aim, piggy-backing off the popularity of the rides didn’t work. The Chute sold almost as poorly as the Coasting Bank and today it sells much worse, despite its rarity. A very fine example of the Shoot the Chute mechanical bank sold in 2008 for $18,000, well below the pre-sale estimate of $25,000 – $35,000. As of that auction, there were only 12 original Shoot the Chute castings known to exist.

Not even a hot comic strip merchandising deal could make it sell. Popular comic strip figures of Buster Brown and his dog Tige were shooting the chute, you’d think they’d have fared better on the market. Richard Outcault began drawing the adventures of young Buster — a sort of Dennis the Menace dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy-like suit — and Tige — a pit bullish pup with the attitude and grin of the dog in The Mask when he channels the spirit of god of mischief Loki — in 1902. The strip was published in the New York Herald and was an immediate hit. In 1904 Outcault, a merchandising visionary, signed a reported 200 licensing deals at the Saint Louis World’s Fair. One of them was St. Louis shoe company Brown Shoes whose Buster Browns line of children’s shoes was so successful it is still going strong and the logo still stars Buster and Tige. They also bought the rights to the name of Buster’s sister in the comic, Mary Jane. That was the birth of the now-iconic Mary Jane shoe.

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