Birthday Bank

Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

When Louis Wolf, president of the Federation of Jewish Charities of Philadelphia, composed his annual message for 1915, he could be gratified that his agency had raised more than $210,000 to help the Jewish community. Of that total, thirty-five dollars had come from pennies saved by Jewish school children. This speck on the balance sheet, however, pleased Wolf more than the many larger contributions solicited in the previous year. “The [children’s] letters with the money enclosed are the real bright spots in our work,” he wrote, “and encourage us to feel that in this innovation we have adopted one of the features that will tend to make the Federation permanent, because as time goes on it gives us material from which the future subscribers of the federation must come.”

The “innovation” to which Wolf referred was the “birthday bank” system for encouraging charity among Jewish children. “the Federation distributed nearly fifteen hundred toy savings banks to students in Philadelphia’s synagogue-based afternoon and Sunday schools. Recipients of the banks were instructed to save two pennies each week, beginning on their birthday and continuing for fifty weeks. The dollar saved over the course of the year was to be given as “your birthday gift to the poor children,” and entitled the donor to membership in the Junior Federation. The birthday bank system was a marked success.

By 1917 the Federation had enrolled more than three thousand girls and boys. Among the members was a young boy named Morton Witlin, who received his birthday bank more than sixty years ago at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel’s Sunday school. Witlin’s bank was recently donated to the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia by his sister, Marilyn Witlin Eisenstaedt of Clearwater, Florida.

The birthday bank – a mass-produced toy adapted for use as a children’s alms container – is a superb example of American-Jewish material culture. It tells many stories – about the young boy who used it, about the agency which distributed it, and about the agency leaders’ image of children.

The National Museum of American Jewish History is dedicated to preserving such artifacts in order to tell the story of the Jews in America from colonial times to the present. The museum’s collections range widely in time and place, from a compact silver Hanukkah lamp used by a Jewish traveler in the eighteenth century to a pair of boxing trunks worn by a present-day Jewish prize fighter. For more information about the museum and its collections, write: National Museum of American Jewish History, 55 North Fifth Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106; or telephone (215) 923-3812. Individuals with disabilities who need special assistance or accommodation should telephone the museum in advance to discuss their needs.