"The Portable Safe"

Manufactured by the Automatic Recording Safe Co., Chicago, IL

I do not know exactly how old my "portable safe" is, but I do know that it had to have been made and distributed before 1941. Most likely, it dates from the second half of the 1930's. This particular one was owned by my late cousin and fortunately for me, she attached the key to it using a string.

There is very little information to be found on the Internet about these portable banks or their manufacturer, nor is there much to indicate their value to collectors. I was able to find this brief history of money boxes and home safes. Here is a forum where owners of this and similar home safes made by the Automatic Recording Safe Company have been discussing their finds. Many of the banks that issued these portable safes kept the key and opened it for you when you came in to deposit the money into your account, which would explain the scarcity of keys out there.

I have made this web page for the benefit of those who have one and wish to open it up. Below are some close-up photos of it. Scroll down farther to find instructions on how to make your own key for it and how to pick the lock if you would rather not bother with making a key.

The chromed plate was customized with the bank's name and their depositor's account number and then riveted to the exterior of the bank prior to shipment by the Automatic Recording Safe Co. My bank was distributed to customers of the Garland State Bank, which was located in Macomb County, Michigan. I have not been able to find any historical information about this bank, but it was most likely located in Warren Township or elsewhere in the southern-most part of the county.

To open the safe, I align the key cylinder as shown and then insert the key so that the single tooth points towards the rounded end of the hinged door. I then rotate the key about 60 degrees in either direction to begin engaging the spring-loaded latch. I then exert more rotational pressure and continue turning the key another 30 degrees to fully retract the latch so I can then pry open the hinged door.

The spring-loaded latch is shown in its normally-closed state. There is a bracket with a detent on the inside of the safe that traps the latch and holds the hinged door closed.

Here is a sketch showing critical dimensions of the key.
The key blank is 1/32 inch thick and 3/4 inch long.
The key is inserted 3/8 inch into the lock.

There are several possible ways to open your "portable safe" if you do not have the original key.   You could find a piece of brass or steel 1/2 inch wide by 3/4 inch long by 1/32 inch thick and then grind or file the lower portion of the key to the dimensions shown on the sketch above and in the photo below. 

Each line on the ruler represents 1/16 of an inch.

Another option would be to take your bank to a locksmith who could probably make this simple key for you.  Or if you just wanted it opened one time to remove any contents, I'm sure the locksmith could "pick" this lock very easily and cheaply without having to make a key.  

If you want to try to pick the lock yourself, it is helpful to know what is inside the lid and how it operates.  Here is what the lock and latch mechanism look like:  

The above photo on the left shows the lid opened and the spring-loaded latch in its normally closed position. The photo on the right shows the detent which captures the latch and holds the lid in the closed and locked position.    


In the left photo above, the key has been inserted and rotated clockwise until it has snugged up against the spring-loaded latch mechanism.  The photo on the right shows the tip of the key poking through the bottom side of the lock tumbler.   The key can be rotated either clockwise or counter-clockwise and once it has been rotated 90 degrees (to the 9 or 3 o'clock positions), the latch will have retracted enough to disengage from the detent and allow the lid to be pulled open.  


If you want to try and "pick" this lock yourself, here is how I was able to do it with my bank.  

1) Spray some WD-40 (or similar metal lubricant) into the keyhole and latch detent areas and let it set for a while to penetrate the lock and detent.

2) Obtain the following:    

a) one large paperclip
b) a pair of pliers with a wire-cutter in the jaws for trimming off the excess length of the paperclip
c) a very small, flat-bladed screwdriver

3) cut and bend a large paperclip so that the inserted end of it looks like this (each line on the ruler represents 1/16 of an inch):



4) Insert the paperclip "key" into the lock, lean it back slightly and then rotate it until you feel it snug up against the latch mechanism.  The photo below shows it having been rotated counter-clockwise:  



5) the paperclip metal is probably too soft to open the latch by itself and it will just bend if you use it to twist the latch to the open position.  Therefore, I used a "helper" screwdriver partially inserted into the keyhole slot to give me the torque force necessary to overcome the latch spring.  It might be easier if you had an assistant twist the screwdriver while you hold the paperclip in position.  With my bank, I noticed that the torque force necessary to open the latch was slightly less when I twisted the "key" clockwise (opposite what is shown above and below).  Once the keyhole slot has rotated 90 degrees (to the 9 or 3 o'clock position), you should be able to pry the lid up and away from the body of the bank.  


Good luck and enjoy your "portable safe"!

Mike Grobbel

This page was created on 17 May 2005; Last Updated 05 March 2010

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