Keeping Your Money Safe in the Old West

letterhead-header 219th century bank tellerIn 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.

SafeTo 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.Piggy Bank


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?

Website | + posts

For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at:

21 thoughts on “Keeping Your Money Safe in the Old West”

  1. I think if I had a lot of money I might trust the bank only because if others knew I had money they might try to rob me. If I just had enough to be comfortable, I think I would put just a little in the bank and hide the rest on my property.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.

  2. Hi Karen,

    Wow! Lots of changes to keep one step of ahead of the criminals. It reminds me of internet hacking today. There is always someone trying to push the limits.

    Did you ever see the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown? Molly hid her paper money in the stove because her husband never used the stove…and then he did and burned a pile of it. I think that was a true face in her life story.

    If I had money back then, I agree with Cindy. I’d “diversify” my assets. But where to hide it on my property? I suppose burying would be best…in a jar somewhere. To keep it in the house, under floorboards, it might end up burned in a house fire.

    Your book sounds fascinating!

    • Thanks, Kathryn. Isn’t it ironic that criminals are responsible for so much enhanced security? I think your comparison to hackers is spot on. 🙂

      I have seen The Unsinkable Molly Brown. So funny! It also shows why people were so distrustful of paper money, too. After the Civil War when Confederate bills were worth nothing – danger of fire (from cold husbands or other sources – ha!) – paper was less reliable than gold. But both could be stolen – and at least paper currency wasn’t so heavy.

      I’m not sure where I would keep mine. Maybe in a hollowed out book? Just seems like a fun hiding place but probably too predictable for a book lover. 🙂

  3. That makes me think of the cute little antique safe my grandpa found during his move recently (though it’s more of a gimmick, really, especially since it’s small enough you could easily walk away with it). It has a combination lock, but you can turn and turn and turn it, and you’ll never hear the tumblers fall into place – the only way in is a secret little button that will release the lock and OPEN A HIDDEN DOOR. The entire front and dial is just for show.

    So long as no one shares the secret, it’s pretty much grandkid-proof, even with grandkids in their twenties. He had a lot of fun laughing over us trying to get in.

  4. HI Karen, what a great post. I learned so much! Hmmmm…I imagine I’d trust a bank but keep a little on me. Just like today. It is sad, though, how others think they can just take what isn’t theirs and put so much effort into it. Rather than go paint an old lady’s house or something, Sheesh.

    • I agree, Tanya. I proctor tests for a living in my day job, and it is crazy to me how much effort some students put into finding clever ways to cheat. If they put half that much effort into studying, they wouldn’t have to cheat!

  5. Karen, I loved your post! So interesting! It would have been a hard choice – where to put the money! If I lived back then, I probably wouldn’t have been rich so who knows where I would have decided to put my little bit of money 🙂

    • Good point, Valri. Most “average” people were fairly cash poor during this time period. I picture the wives hiding their egg money in a sugar canister on the top shelf in their kitchen. 🙂

  6. Money will never be “safe” in this fallen world I’m afraid! Loved all the old pictures and articles!

    • So true, Jennifer. I guess that’s why Christ taught us not to put our faith in things that “moths and rust destroy and that thieves break in and steal.” Money is not our true treasure.

  7. I still dont competely trust banks,,my grandmother had a metal box that she had her tresures buried in the back yard away from the house a bit,,also ive hidden money in a meat wrapper and put it in the freezer,,the cookie jar and under the bed are the first place ppl who rob look,,was a very interesting post though,,i escaped a abusive 30yr marriage by waiting until the last child had became a adult and left home then i moved 1200 miles away to start over,,second chances are hard to get and its never too late to escape

    • What a powerful story, Vickie. Wow! I can certainly see the need for someone in your situation to keep a private stash somewhere secret. And I love that your grandmother had her own buried treasure.

  8. Got to see and touch a really old late 19th century safe old hotel converted to pats. To heavy to move was something to see,touch man the door alone weigh a ton.

  9. This was so interesting. My cowboy and I just watched a couple of Gunsmoke episodes where the thieves involving the bank safe. In one instance… one a bit more humorous… a kid is causing havoc all over Dodge. He sets the general store owner’s pants on fire, then when the man runs outside to throw himself in the watering trough, his new safe is locked with someone inside. And he (the store owner) hasn’t received the combination yet.

    • Hi, Pam. So great to have you dropping by today! That poor store owner. Ha! Sounds like one crazy episode. I’m sure Matt Dillon found a way to save the day. 🙂

Comments are closed.