A 'Jolly Nigger' penny bank

Jolly Nigger Bank

Materials: cast iron, painted
Dimensions: 11 centimeters high
Place acquired: Portobello Road market, London
Place of manufacture: unknown

This object depicts the head and shoulders of a black man. His features are caricatured for vicious effect and the words ‘Jolly Nigger Bank’ are moulded in to the cast metal of his back. He is an example of an articulated penny bank, and by placing a coin in the figure’s hand and pressing a lever on the back he will swallow the coin while rolling his eyeballs upwards.

Penny banks like this one were made throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, right up until the 1950s. Most versions were made in America but surprisingly, many were manufactured in Britain. Surprising only for the reason that the figure clearly represents an african-american. In his smart jacket and bow tie he typifies the black, urban ‘nigger minstrel’, the racist caricature that was such a fixture of white american popular culture during this period. I bought this particular one in a London street market and it’s not obvious where it was made. It could have been made in Britain, but it could just as easily have been China or Taiwan because my 'Jolly Nigger' is a modern reproduction. The design and manufacture is close to the originals, but the paint is too fresh and not quite the right colour. Also, it was not expensive – the originals are. For whatever reason these penny banks have become collectors’ items, part of a genre called african-americana, or sometimes, with more frankness, ‘coonerie’. It is this latter-day collectability that has encouraged the production of fakes like mine.

Although many of the original banks were made and sold in Britain, it was originally an american product, and clearly it had slightly different connotations in the two countries. The nature of racial politics in America would have made the 'Jolly Nigger Bank', along with much other ‘coonerie’ a real social weapon, a joke enjoyed by white americans but aimed with deadly malice at the black americans in their midst. In Britain the joke was more abstract. Just as racist but somehow not seen as so damaging. After all, who was it going to offend? All Britain's ‘niggers’ were overseas. Throughout the 18th, 19th and most of the 20th centuries, the sharp end of British racism was happening somewhere else – the Caribbean, Australia, India, Africa. Britain exported its more brutal racial policies to its far-flung empire. But at home British racism could afford to be of the patronising, paternalistic kind, the ‘white man’s burden’ – more Kipling than Ku Klux Klan. There was not the fear and hatred born of daily contact with the people you were oppressing.

The original 'nigger banks' begin to appear after the end of slavery in the USA, but they are imbued with the racial thinking that slavery created. This includes of course the 300 years of British slavery in the early american colonies and the Caribbean.