Small toy piggy banks for depositing coins have been discovered in the tombs of ancient civilizations, but probably their purpose was more symbolic than practical. In Europe, the production of toy banks for children was already well established in the 16th century, when a writer called them 'boxes of potters clay wherein one put their money to keep.' Toy banks became popular in the United States when hard currency was introduced during the 18th century. The manufacture of banks greatly increased with the establishment of the first chartered savings bank in New York City in 1819; thrift was thus institutionalized as a national policy. Throughout the 19th century, the use of toy banks charmingly reinforced Benjamin Franklin's aphorism: 'A penny saved is a penny earned.'
The most complex banks were toy mechanical cast-iron models produced from the 1870s through the 1930s by such firms as Stevens and W. J. Shepard. Although these banks appeared in many forms: from clowns to whatever, they operated on two simple principles: The weight of the deposited coin caused the action to begin, or a person, after inserting a coin, pressed a lever or switch that activated a spring and set the bank in motion. There were hundreds of types mechanical banks, some of which are known today only through illustration in early manufacturers' catalogues. A number of popular models were even made illustrating controversial political subjects. A few mechanical banks are still being made today, but none are of the rare and valuable type of the original cast-iron ones.
Since the 19th century, still banks have been produced in huge quantities and many styles. They depicted, at first, a fascinating range of mid-19th century buildings and, later, human and animal figures. Although a few were made of wood, glass, pottery, or composition, by far the most common materials were tinplate and cast-iron.
Tinplate piggy banks were most popular from the 1860s to 1890s. At first painted by hand, they were later stenciled and, in the early 20th century, decorated with color lithography. The majority of tinplate banks took the form of a small, simple building, often with the word 'bank' printed across the front.
The more elaborate types of toy bank buildings were made of cast iron. Most cast-iron banks were mass-produced, using highly detailed molds, by A. C. Williams, J. & E. Stevens, and Kenton from the 1870s to the 1930s. Some were assembled from separate, individually cast pieces, allowing for the creation of quite ornate architectural styles, such as towering skyscrapers. Cast-iron still banks also depicted a variety of human figures, including soldiers, sailors, Boy Scouts, and comic characters like Buster Brown and the Yellow Kid, as well as animals ranging from cats and dogs to lions and elephants. Vintage piggy banks are highly collectible.