The Hot Bid: Banking on a Girl Skipping Rope

J. & E. Stevens’ Girl Skipping Rope is considered the ultimate in cast-iron mechanical bank design. Morphy Auctions image

What you see: An antique mechanical bank in the form of a girl skipping rope. Morphy Auctions, which will auction the bank on February 27, 2021, estimates it at $60,000 to $90,000.

The expert: Collector Bob Brady, consignor of the Girl Skipping Rope mechanical bank.

This mechanical bank was made by the J. & E. Stevens Co. Did it have a good reputation as a maker of mechanical banks? Also, when did it go out of business? J. & E. Stevens was the largest mechanical bank manufacturer. It was probably responsible for 50 or so of the mechanical banks that are out there. They made some of the best action mechanical banks and they made banks that were extremely colorful. Before World War II, they were out of the business of making mechanical banks. I believe what happened is the cost of manufacturing became prohibitive.

The lot notes for the Girl Skipping Rope mechanical bank don’t give a date. Do we know when the bank was in production, and when this example might have been made? The patent was approved in the late 1890s. It was probably manufactured until the 1920s, maybe a little into the 1930s. There were variations in production styles on the Girl Skipping Rope. There’s color variations on the girl’s dress – blue, brown and yellow dresses are out there – but the main part of the bank stayed the same. The rope was originally cast iron, but because they had problems with the rope, they ended up casting it in brass. On this one, the rope is cast iron.

Did J. & E. Stevens invent the Girl Skipping Rope form of mechanical bank, or did they see it elsewhere, put their own spin on it, and popularize it? This was their design and their manufacturing. No one else tried to replicate the Girl Skipping Rope.

Do we have any idea how many Girl Skipping Rope mechanical banks were made? Did J. & E. Stevens keep production records? I don’t know anybody who had ever had those kinds of records for J. & E. Stevens.

How many examples of the Girl Skipping Rope mechanical bank survive? There might be, oh, possibly less than 100 in varying conditions. Maybe 15 to 20 are original, without repairs. This example is the second-best I know.

What makes this one the second-best example you’ve seen? Basically, the number of chips on the bank. I’m comparing all-original banks. It’s just the wear. Another factor that comes into play is there’s a lot of red on the bank. If it came into contact with daylight, the red would turn to a light, faded pinkish color, or it goes back to the base, prime color, which is white. That’s pretty much only on red. The other colors survive well.

The generous amount red paint on the banks tended to fade to pink when exposed to prolonged sunlight. The original paint on this bank remains vivid. Morphy Auctions image

While I haven’t seen a ton of mechanical banks, most of the ones I’ve seen feature animals, or groups of men, or people with animals, or a boy – not an individual girl. Is it unusual for a bank to showcase a girl, as this one does? There are a few other girl-type banks, but their actions aren’t nearly as drastic as on the Girl Skipping Rope.

How does she work? The coin gets put in the bank in the green area just below the squirrel. It sits there until the motion starts, then it falls to the bottom of the bank, where it’s stored. There’s a lever at the level of the girl’s feet if she’s standing up straight. [In the above photo, it looks like a doorknob, and it’s at the level of her knees.] That starts the girl swinging. As it makes a 360-degree rotation, the girl’s head looks left and right, and her feet move forward. She jumps the rope three or four times, but in examples I’ve operated, I’ve seen as high as 20.

I see that the Girl Skipping Rope mechanical bank comes with a key. What did it do? The bank had a difficult mechanism in it. It had to have a strong enough spring to rotate a flywheel that was 6 inches in diameter. It had a bit of weight to it. You had to turn it 270 degrees, three-quarters of a turn, to lock it into position and activate it. Even an adult could have trouble turning the key. And if the key slipped off, the spring-loaded mechanism could break internally.

And that’d be the end of the bank? Pretty much. People like myself try to stay away from repaired banks. I strive for the best condition imaginable.

The bank is made entirely of cast iron. How much does it weigh? Probably about 4 pounds.

Who were mechanical banks made for? Who was the target audience? Were they made for children, to encourage them to save money, or were they actually enjoyed by adults? I’ll tell you what appealed to me when I saw them. I grew up poor. These banks imply thrift. And you’ve got the action associated with it, and this has the best action of any of the banks. It’s a pretty intricate working bank. I think the reason why J. & E. Stevens had a girl on it was it was aiming at a female market. But I think girls and boys would find it equally desirable.

What makes the Girl Skipping Rope mechanical bank so beloved among collectors? And how much of it has to do with its action–how it moves? It’s such an appealing bank and a desirable bank. Everybody strives to have a Girl Skipping Rope. Its popularity and its availability is such that it’s an expensive bank to own. I’d say it has the most elaborate movement, and there’s the symbolism – the girl skipping rope is the logo of the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America. They thought enough of that bank to pick it as their logo.

So the Girl Skipping Rope is literally the symbol for mechanical banks? [Laughs] It’s kind of the tip of the spear for mechanical banks. If someone has a Girl Skipping Rope, they’ve had 50 or 100 banks before getting to that level. Unless you’re an heir to Nike, you’re not going to buy one of these early in the collecting cycle.

The girl’s head turns from side to side as she jumps rope. Morphy Auctions image

The figure on the Girl Skipping Rope mechanical bank is wearing a dress that’s a lot duller in color than the rest of the bank. Why? Is a beige-colored dress closer to what little girls actually would have worn when the bank was new? Generally, I would say yeah. I wasn’t around in 1890, but it was an acceptable style of the time.

The mechanical bank has a squirrel on it. Do we know why? Was it the mascot of J. & E. Stevens or something? [Laughs] I’m purely speculating, but they were probably looking for some animal a girl would be familiar with. It probably could just have easily been a rabbit.

What coins does the bank accept? Pennies on up to quarters? Yeah. I’ve never tried a quarter. Generally, I never put a coin in. I just operate it.

How do you operate it without putting a coin in it? You can release the spring by pushing the lever down [the gold doorknob-like object sticking out of the colorfully painted structure that lines up with the girl’s feet or knees, depending]. That operates the bank. I can also move it manually by putting my fingers on the rope and rotating it.

How do you get the coins out? Do you turn it upside down and take off the bottom plate? You can use a screwdriver on the little Swiss lock on the bottom of the bank. There’s nothing sophisticated about it.

The mechanical bank is described as being in “near mint” condition. What does that mean? It means it’s all-original, no repairs, no repaints, nothing done to it. It’s the way it looked 125 years ago. That’s what people strive for.

This example of the Girl Skipping Rope mechanical bank comes with its original cast-iron key. How rare is that? It’s very rare to have its original key. They do make reproductions, but they’re not nearly as good.

The original key to wind the Girl Jumping Rope bank’s mechanism is, in itself, a rare find. Morphy Auctions image

When did you get this mechanical bank? I bought it in 2007, at the Stephen and Marilyn Steckbeck sale at Morphy’s. At the time, it was the biggest mechanical bank collection ever to come to auction.

Would the sum you paid in 2007 represent a world auction record for a Girl Skipping Rope mechanical bank? To the best of my knowledge, that was the record.

How does your mechanical bank collection make you happy? Also, why sell it now? Mechanical banks are true American antiques. Only so many were made. I enjoy seeing the shapes of the banks and knowing what their actions are. They represent savings and also relate to my undergraduate degree, which was in mechanical engineering. I look at my mechanical banks every day. I’ve got them showcased throughout the house. I’m only selling them now because I’m 78 and my kids never took an interest in them and my wife has terminal cancer. And they hold special memories for me. I’ve met people from all over the world through collecting — types of associations I’d never have if not through collecting mechanical banks. Some of my best friends are actively involved in bank-collecting.

Why not delay the sale until COVID-19 is no longer a concern, so you can enjoy seeing your friends gather to bid on your collection? I did my will, which is pretty important with my wife’s condition. Also, Morphy’s has an option – it has a theater-style auction room. Morphy’s can seat 75 people in that room with face masks and the required spacing needed in Pennsylvania. And they’ve gotten to the point now where you can do so much online. We have the best of both worlds.

Have you decided yet if you’ll be there in person for the sale? [Laughs] I’m not sure. It’s going to be hard. It’s a big part of me. I have decided if I do go, I’m going to sit up front, to be away from any of the interactions.

How to bid: The Girl Skipping Rope mechanical bank is lot 1070 in The Bob and Judy Brady Mechanical Bank Auction, scheduled at Morphy Auctions on Feb. 27, 2021. Bid absentee or live online through LiveAuctioneers.

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By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY

Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction.