In my current work in progress, I have a heroine who established a women’s colony in 19th century Texas. Harper’s Station – a place where women can make a fresh start because women–not men–make the rules. Some have come to escape abuse, some have come because they had nowhere else to turn for financial support, some simply came to ply a trade not normally accepted for females. At the center is my heroine, Emma Chandler. Raised by suffragette aunts, she believes women fully capable of managing their own affairs. In fact, she banks on that belief–literally. You see, Emma runs the town bank, and it is her loans and savvy business sense that allow so many women the fresh starts they dearly need.
As I was researching 19th century banking, I ran across some fascinating information about how they keep their money safe. Harper’s Station is eventually threatened by outlaws, and I needed to ensure that Emma and her female clientele would be protected.
Until the mid-1800s, most United States banks utilized small iron safes fitted with a key lock. After the Gold Rush of 1849, however, many frustrated prospectors decided there was an easier way to get the gold they craved–rob a bank! Using tools they were accustomed to, they broke into the buildings with pickaxe and hammer. The safes they encountered were small enough that they could simply take them and break them open in a more secluded location.
To make it harder on thieves to carry off the safes, companies started making them larger and heavier. However, the safe itself was still vulnerable through the keyhole. All a bank robber had to do was poor gunpowder in the hole and set it off in order to blast off the door.
In 1861, Linus Yale, Jr. invented the combination lock. Bankers rejoiced. Surely this would be theft-proof. Yet, as well all know, criminals can be a decisively creative lot. Eventually, they learned ways to manipulate the lock. For example, they could drill a hole in the door then use a mirror to view the slots in the mechanism. Or – they could simply hold the bank manager at gunpoint and force him to reveal the combination.
In the 1870’s banks moved to safes that incorporated a new design that not only featured a combination lock, but a timer mechanism as well. The safe could only be opened after a set number of hours had passed. So even if the bank manager gave up the combination, the code wouldn’t work unless the timer had expired. (Wonder how many bank employees got shot by disgruntled bank robbers over that new feature?) This meant the thieves had to find new ways to get inside the safe itself. Some figured out how to use a chisel or other sharp tool to pry open the crack between the door and the safe. If they got it open just enough, they could use the gunpowder method to blow off the door.
Vault makers responded by making grooved doors that could not be pried open. But the grooves provided an ideal catch for liquid nitroglycerin. Professional bank robbers learned to boil dynamite in a kettle of water and skim the nitroglycerin off the top. They could drip this volatile liquid into the door grooves and destroy the door. Vault makers subsequently redesigned their doors so they closed with a thick, smooth, tapered plug. The plug fit so tightly that there was no room for the nitroglycerin. This was the design Emma Chandler employed.
Of course, thieves kept pushing the envelope and security companies had to keep stepping up their game. This back and forth still drives the business today.
If you lived back in the 19th century – before the federal government insured funds held by banks – would you have felt safe depositing your money there? Or would you have been more likely to stash it in the cookie jar or under your mattress?