Antique Bank Safes: History and Different Styles Revealed

Updated January 24, 2022
old bank vault at Milwaukee County Historical Society And Museum

From ornate cannonball safes and rectangular double walled cast iron creations to massive pressure sensitive vaults with ornate bankers' doors, antique bank safes are highly valued for their beauty, craftsmanship, and historical significance as precious treasures of the past. Whether you feel like the only place worthy of storing your grandmother's pearls is an antique safe or you just desperately want to reenact a scene from your favorite heist movie, there's an antique safe out there that'd love to come home with you.

Early American Bank Safes

Although most early bankers actually kept their money secured in their bank's safe, there's a pop culture myth that continues to circulate proposing that bankers took their money home and kept it under their beds while they slept. Another common theory is that some bankers were said to have locked up the bank's safe each night and then deposited the money into a trash basket covered with papers or a cloth for safekeeping until morning. There's even one old western myth that tells of an Oklahoma frontier banker that kept his bank's money in a grated box complete with rattlesnakes inside for ultimate protection.

Whether these stories are true or not, one thing is certain, early bankers knew how important it was to show their clients that their money was absolutely safe and secure. This was especially important in an age largely before credit when people's entire fortunes could go up in a blaze, be eaten by a bank's poor investments, or be stolen by some ne'er-do-wells. Most bankers displayed their ornate cannonball safes as a way of reassuring their customers that the money they deposited was safely kept. Other banks often kept their vault doors open to allow their customers full view of the safe's inner components to personally experience its sturdiness.

Antique Cannonball Bank Safes

Farmers & Merchant Bank Cannonball Safe Manganese Steel

Large cannonball safes were made for commercial use, and a smaller version was also made for personal use. The large commercial cannonball safes used in banks are often referred to as having a ball on a box design. Most cannonball safes were ornately decorated on the inside and outside with hand jewelling that sparkled like diamonds. Other decorative accents included:

  • Gold fleck paint
  • Pin striping
  • Engravings
  • Hand painted exposed time clocks with gold-plated parts and enameled faces were made by the Elgin National Watch Company
  • Hand-painted designs and scenes
cannonball safe at Cedar Key Historical Museum

The cannonball safes were constructed of two sections, a bottom section that had legs holding a large metal box, and a huge round metal ball attached to the box. Important documents were kept in the bottom section of the safe while paper currency, gold and silver were kept in the round top section.

Weighing approximately 3,600 pounds, cannonball bank safes were considered robbery proof because of their massive weight and round shape. Most companies created their safes out of a standard design with added accents and logos particular to their brand. Some of these manufacturers of cannonball safes include:

  • Mosler Safe Co.
  • York Safe and Lock Co.
  • Elgin National Watch Company
  • Marvin Safe Co.
  • Victor Safe and Lock Co.

Rectangular Antique Bank Safes

antique rectangular bank safe

In the United States, safes weren't manufactured until the mid 1820s. Before that, all safes were made in Europe and imported. These early rectangular bank safes were often made with double walls that were filled with various materials, including:

  • Soft steel rods that ran both vertically and horizontally
  • Franklinite
  • Alum, alkali, and clay
  • Plaster of Paris, mortar, or asbestos as a fire proofing material

Just as the cannonball safes, most rectangular antique safes used in banks were lavishly decorated with hand painted details, including many beautiful scenes or floral paintings. These safes had a single door or a set of double doors; however, they were less frequently used than their cannonball safe counterparts, as banks preferred the floor-to-ceiling security of a bank vault.

Walk-In Safes and Bank Vaults

man standing in bank vault 1936

Walk-in safes and vaults were generally placed in many larger bank buildings in cities, though more and more banks, by the turn of the century, had a vault of some kind. In many instances, the building was built around the massive walk-in safe or bank vault, and these vaults were crafted out of concrete reinforced with steel. The following websites offer digital collections showcasing pictures of several of these special antiques.

  • The Downtown Center - The Downtown Center shows an antique Diebold bank vault door that weighs approximately 4500 pounds.
  • Protection Lock - Among the safes shown at Protection Lock is a beautiful round door Mosler bank vault door.
  • Interstate Security - This lock and safe company sells both modern and antique goods, and you can view pictures of their past safe sales with just a click.

An Unusual Pistol Firing Safe

A most unusual strongbox safe offered by Carlton Hobbs LLC of New York City is believed to have been constructed by the Russian Tula workshops in approximately 1815. This unusual antique steel safe fires two loaded pistols aimed at anyone that opens it incorrectly. In addition, there's a complex locking mechanism that consists of several inside safes, multiple bolts, and hidden keyholes.

Details about this safe's history are completely unknown. Although no trace of an imperial monogram has been found, some believe that this unique safe may have been made for imperial purposes. Perhaps it was even used in one of the Russian state banks that were established in the late 1860s. Maybe someday the history of the 'shooting safe' will be unveiled.

Ways to Date Your Antique Bank Safes

If you happen to have an eccentric aunt who's left you an antique safe in her last will and testament, then you might be wondering just how old the dust-bunny collector might be. If you live in America, most antique safes are only going to be from the 19th century and later. Yet, there are a few characteristics you can be on the lookout for to give yourself a better idea of what period your safe was built in.

Old Safe in the Parcel Post Bank in Vernal Utah
  • Look for a manufacturing date - You might be able to find latent labeling or engraved labels that detail when the safe was built. Check the inside paneling and the safe's exterior to see what you can find.
  • Determine the manufacturer - Look for information inside the safe detailing what the manufacturer's name is; sometimes, these businesses have guides available for you to cross-reference your safe to.
  • Figure out its locking system - The oldest safes were protected using lock and keys, so a safe that looks pretty old and only uses a physical key to unlock is usually older than one that has a rolling combination mechanism.
  • Observe the safe's design - Look over the safe's design and determine what type of colors they used, if there is dated lettering in the labeling, and if there's distinctive accent marks that you can see. For instance, delicate line work and painted piping on the outside of some safes could indicate it was from the 1920s-1930s.

Antique Bank Safes and Their Modern Uses

Unlike some artifacts from hundreds of years ago, antique bank safes can still be used today. So long as these safes' locking mechanisms are in-tact and haven't been compromised (and if they have, that they've been restored by a professional), they're perfectly safe to use for their intended purpose. This leads many people to the question of whether antique safes do a better job of protecting the goods inside than modern safes do.

In one way, they actually do. You can pick up a modern safe for a couple hundred bucks, and it can be set to open with a combination lock or biometric scanner. These safes are generally created to be easy for the owners to retrieve their items than they are to really deter thieves. When it comes to antique safes, there tended to be more mechanisms in place to deter thieves, and the materials that were used to make them were quite impenetrable. Now, this doesn't mean that there aren't high-grade safes you can purchase today that can withstand attacks that even antique safes couldn't handle; but, when pitting an average antique bank safe against a domestic safe nowadays, the antique safe should win every time.

Antique Banks Weren't to Be Trifled With

Given their precarious positions as the guarders of everyone's wealth, banks weren't to be trifled with when it came to securing their goods. From cannonball safes to 12" thick bank vaults, antique bank safes were indomitable forces and yet delicately designed. You don't have to have jewels and documents that need to be protected to appreciate the fine craftsmanship that went into creating these precise mechanisms.

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Antique Bank Safes: History and Different Styles Revealed