Throwback Thursday: Furniture of past, and era of the piggy box!

The great old department stores of Cork, local furniture making, and saving pennies, are all on the agenda for JO KERRIGAN this week
Throwback Thursday: Furniture of past, and era of the piggy box!

Some of the items on sale in J. Casey Ltd furniture store in Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork city, in 1957.

WE can share more on that intriguing system of transferring money around large department stores in Cork, which we touched upon last week in Throwback Thursday — thanks to Joe Burns, who writes to offer his own gratitude “for the great read every Thursday”.

He says he really must sit down and write about his own Saturday shopping excursions with his mother back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “I will do — some day!”

In the meantime, he confirms, the Munster Arcade did indeed have a chute system for paying one’s account after making a purchase.

“I found this online just now,” he says helpfully:

Pneumatic post, or pneumatic mail, was a system to deliver letters through pressurised air tubes. It was invented by the Scottish engineer William Murdoch in the 19th century and was later developed by the London Pneumatic Despatch Company.

And yes, the Munster Arcade did have a large outlet in Oliver Plunket Street, opposite the back of the main store, remembers Joe. 

“Where Guineys are now,” he confirms.

“Originally, I think it was their furniture-making premises, and when that side of their operations closed down, they continued for a while just selling furniture from this store.”

Munster Arcade craftsmen, all trained up from apprenticeship level within the company, made all kinds of furniture, continues Joe. 

“Wardrobes, chests of drawers, bed ends, cabinets. A great choice for the housewife of the day.”

Now listen up, reader — do you have any of those traditional Cork-made pieces in your own home, unbeknownst to you? Find out this minute! Tip an armchair or sofa over (or get the kids to help) and see if there is, by any chance, an old label or plastic plaque underneath, telling where it came from. And let us know!

Munster Arcade were also one of the cabinet makers who made the famous Cork chairs, which over time came as 7-bar, 9-bar, and 11-bar examples. Forde’s in Barrack Street was another.

“You can find factory-made examples, and craftsman-made ones,” says another reader, Tom, who is an expert in old furniture.

“The factory ones, you can run your finger down between the bars and they are all even. The ones made by hand, you can try to do the same but while your finger gets jammed between one pair, it runs easily down between another two. It’s nicer like that really, showing that they were really made by hand, every piece individually.”

Now there is a history that should be written about, says Joe Burns: furniture making in Cork, and particularly Cork chairs.

Well, when you’ve finished getting down your own memories of shopping expeditions in the ’50s with your mother, get started on it, Joe.

Always follow your interest — the one topic that energises you, gets you going, “lights the lamp in the spine”, as Virginia Woolf so aptly put it. Go to it! If not now, when?

Just remember that, all of you who have promised yourselves that ‘some day’ you will get all those memories written down. Do it now!

Now, while parents were spending their hard-earned money on a rare piece of new furniture, their children were always encouraged to save against a rainy day, or indeed a chilly future.

Lloyds Money Box.
Lloyds Money Box.

It was very much the post-war ethic, when every penny counted, and to let coins drop on the pavement and not bother to pick them up, as kids do now, was absolutely unthinkable.

Money boxes were de rigeur in every household, whether a flimsy affair of tin, or a more solid design that defeated casual raiding.

Into these went anything earned from odd jobs or given by generous relatives on the occasion of a First Holy Communion or Confirmation or at Christmas or birthdays.

Tommy remembers having a bank money box. “It was like a little book but made of heavy metal with, I think, a softer covering skin over that. It had a slot for coins and a round hole which could take a rolled up ten shilling note. It couldn’t be opened except by a bank official.”

Tommy remembers exactly how much was in it when it received that formal opening at the Munster and Leinster Bank on the corner of Coburg Street around 1950.

“Seventeen shillings and fourpence ha’penny. I was about eight at the time and was saving up for a scooter.

“That bank money book held all the sixpences and shillings I might have got from relatives at Christmas, Communion money, and anything I had earned by doing odd jobs.

“I remember I got 6d for cutting the lawn at my grandmother’s, and 3d for going round the garden with a bucket to collect snails, which were then thrown over the railing at the bottom of the garden, down the steep drop on to the old railway line between the house and the Lower Road. Every one of those coins went into the money box.”

The scooter would have cost about 27s 6d, he thinks, “and my mother agreed to make up the balance as she knew how much I wanted that scooter”.

Tommy adds: “I can’t remember where we got it, but it was down in the city centre anyway, as I remember scooting up Bridge Street past Landon’s on it. Did the Munster Arcade do toys like that? Otherwise it would have been the Lee Stores on the Grand Parade, a Mecca for toy lovers. The scooter was bright red, a Triang. I loved it to bits and went everywhere on it.”

Jean Kearney’s memory is also of a money box shaped like a small book, which could only be opened in the bank. “I also still have my very old post office savings book somewhere. I used to put in half a crown a week once I started work.

“I actually had my first job behind the counter in Dunnes on Patrick Street the summer I was 14 — sweet heaven, you’d have Tusla after you nowadays if you sent a child to work at that age, but we were mad to just get the opportunity,” recalls Jean.

“Myself and my pal, Kathryn, who also worked there, thought we were the bizz. Our treat on a Friday when we were paid was a meal in The Talk of the Town followed by a film. I seem to remember a ‘mixed grill’ as being the height of sophistication! Mind you, half of whatever it was I was paid was handed to my mother...”

Yes, that was what you did back then, agrees Jane.

“I was paid £5 a week (less tax of course) in my very first job in the mid-1960s, and gave my mother half. It was expected, since she had spent all those years providing for you, and now it was your turn to give something towards the household costs.

“But the remainder, a little over two pounds, made me feel rich. I remember buying the LP of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial By Jury/HMS Pinafore at that record shop on the Grand Parade with my first earnings and felt so proud!”

What kind of money box did you have? These days the piggy bank is taken for granted, but where did they originate? Further back than you think.

Terracotta banks in the shape of a pig with a slot in the top for depositing coins were made in Java as far back as the 14th century. Not many of these survive today, obviously, since (like all early piggy banks) they needed to be broken to get at the coins.

A 650-year old Majapahit terracotta piggy bank was offered for sale a year or two back in the UK at £6,000 (near enough €7,000). Today, Victorian money boxes sell for high prices.

Two old money boxes in Jo Kerrigan’s collection — a Victorian wall mounted one, and an American cast iron with a tiny slot at the back.
Two old money boxes in Jo Kerrigan’s collection — a Victorian wall mounted one, and an American cast iron with a tiny slot at the back.

Or you might use a favourite box or toffee tin as a hoard. Gemma Lynch remembers saving English silver sixpences in a Dimple Haig bottle.

“They had to be the English ones as those were smaller and thinner than the Irish one with the wolfhound on. It was amazing how quickly it mounted up.

Nearly all of us remember the old red letter box type.

“You could get coins out of those with a flat-bladed knife,” remembers Mary. 

“It took a bit of dexterity, and it was maddening to see the coin appear behind the slot, only to slide off the knife and drop once more into the depths as you so carefully drew the blade back.”

“My father, who was firmly of the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ philosophy, always encouraged us to save,” says Johnny Campbell. “Although predictably, I generally spent all monies that came into my possession fairly quickly.

“When I became music crazy, I used to save whatever money I could to buy records, but that was always rather short term and did not require a ‘conjin’ box of any description.

Ah yes, the ‘conjin box’. We have heard the name over the years, but were unaware of its origin. Mary O’Leary is able to throw more light on the issue:

“Yes, we did have those red post box money boxes, and yes, they did get a bit battered as we used table knives to enlarge the hole and get our pennies back out! They used to be called ‘conjin boxes’.

“If I remember rightly, Sean Beecher in his Dictionary of Cork Slang, considers that name to be of Indian origin, and that it was brought back to Cork by the Munster Fusiliers. 

"The popular use of the word ‘moolah’ for money seems to have the same origin.”

Jean Kearney, mentioned further up the page, recalled her old post office savings book.

How many readers can remember their own accounts in those little temples of power, and how scared were they of offending authority by daring to ask for a withdrawal?

“My first post office account was set up on a wet and gloomy January day when I was about eight,” recalls Katie.

“An aunt must have given me five shillings at Christmas, because as soon as things opened up again, my father marched me down to the dark little post office on MacCurtain Street.

“I can remember the battered old wooden counter and what seemed like a very elderly woman glaring out at us. My father said that I would like to open an account with my 5/- and she snapped that it required 10/- to do so.

“He resignedly coughed up the five shilling balance and the account was set up in a grand manner that suggested initiation into some appallingly strict secret society.

“I never felt happy going into that little post office to deposit money, still less when I wanted to get any out!”

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