Bandit Barriers of Yesteryear: Steel and Mirrors

Bullet Resistant Barriers

In the 1930s and ’40s bank robbers enjoyed a hay day. The first year of the Great Depression saw a twelve-fold increase in crime in the United States, and bank robbers were more often characterized in the media as Robin Hood-like folk heroes than dangerous hooligans. With few bullet-stopping technologies, overburdened law enforcement, and poor public support, banks became inventive with their bandit barriers.

DEPRESSION ERA BANDIT BARRIERS

Early bank teller stands were really little more than iron cages. While this certainly kept money secure–no bandit could get to it–it also left the teller highly exposed, and thus very susceptible to coercion. Guns were plentiful during the Depression, but reliable bullet proof glass still a decade away. In the absence of any meaningful ballistic materials (other than steel), early bandit barriers were creative–often dubiously so. One early example is this tear-gas spraying bank teller window reported in a February 1932 issue of Uncovered!

You can see that this early “teller cage”-style bandit barrier offered no ballistic protection. Since there was no way for this arrangement to stop a bullet, the idea was to blind an armed bandit with noxious fumes before he could pull the trigger. Unfortunately, this no doubt also blinded the teller himself, as well as other patrons, and any guards. Blinded and enraged, it seems likely that your average bank robber would be more inclined to fire blindly through the tears than to quietly await the arrival of gas-mask clad police.
Something like the “inclosed” cashier cage seen below (from an article in the November 1933 Popular Science) addresses some of these issues: it completely protects the cashier and shields her from any possible danger.

But this safety comes at too great a sacrifice to convenience: How long does the line get at that bank on pay day, as customers wait for the teller to spin in and out of her steel cocoon? Any bandit barrier that is this much of an obstacle to business is unlikely to see widespread adoption.
Now, something like Boivin’s “Venetian Blinds of Steel” (is shown in this brief item in the October 1937 Mechanics and Handicraft) goes in a more recognizably modern direction: The design seeks to offer bullet proof security while remaining unobtrusive, staying out of the way until it is needed (much like a 21st century sliding transaction window).

But even in 1937, the limitations here were obvious. First and foremost–as pointed out in the article itself–to deploy the bandit barrier the teller must race against a bullet fired at point-blank range. Not good odds there. More subtly, there are issues with using three-foot long runs of 3/16″ inch steel, as Boivin has here. According to Jim Richards–vice president of Total Security Solutions, one of the nation’s premier bullet resistant system design and fabrication firms–“Yes, that will stop a bullet, but there’s so much force hitting that one inch strip that the second shot is going to blow it right off whatever it’s attached to.”

EARLY MODERN BANDIT BARRIERS

By the 1940s, we begin to see the fundamental components of modern bandit barrier systems coming into play: a clear communication system, face-to-face worker-customer interaction, and an easy method for passing cash and paperwork, all while keeping workers completely secure.

Take for example this “Teller-Vision” system (reported in the October 1941 Popular Science):

The Teller-Vision design relies on an intercom, a set of parallel mirrors, and a dumb-waiter, so that a teller safely seated in a subterranean office can serve drive-thru customers face-to-face without risking exposure to armed bandits.
Although the Teller-Vision still has the “crazy contraption” feel of those Depression Era bandit barriers, it offers all the security qualities of a modern transaction window.