Object 6: Home safe, 1920s

Home safe of National Provincial Bank, 1920s

Home safe issued by National Provincial Bank, 1920s © RBS

Before the 1920s, banking was largely the preserve of the wealthy. People with a little money might have an account with a local savings bank, but there was a strong assumption that the big clearing banks were not for ordinary people. Home safes changed all that, and they did it in a quite revolutionary way. Instead of striving to bring people into the bank, they sent the bank out into people's homes.

The 1920s brought contrasting conditions and experiences for the British people. On the one hand, there were rising wages for those in employment and a boom in private house building. On the other, this was a period of decline in Britain's old staple industries, bringing widespread unemployment and moments of deep recession and social protest.

These difficult economic circumstances presented a challenge for the banks, which needed to maintain balance sheet stability amid all this change. For the first time in their history, they did so by looking not to a few big customers, but to a great many small ones. It was against this backdrop that in 1926 they copied an idea from the Post Office and other savings institutions, and introduced the home safe.

Little metal safes were given out to customers, into which they could easily drop whatever notes or coins they could spare. They would then periodically take the safe to their bank, which held the only key, so the money could be transferred into a savings account. Interest was paid and a passbook issued.

looking not to a few big customers, but to a great many small ones

Home safe advertisement, c.1930

For customers, particularly the small savers to whom home safes were advertised, the scheme helped sweep away intimidating notions about the big banks and provided an avenue for working towards the aspirations awakened by the social mobility of the First World War. People who could not afford the things they wanted could at least save towards them, and the banks would help them do it.

The safes are smart, well-made objects that are pleasing to look at and hold. We should remember, though, that when the small saver of the 1920s picked up his first home safe, he held in his hands much more than just a little metal box. He held the power to plan, to protect, and to dream.