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Home | Articles | Know Your Antiques—Collecting American Antique Toys

Fig. 2: Trick Pony Mechanical Bank, Shepherd Hardware, Buffalo, NY, 1885. Cast iron. Courtesy of the author.

Prior to 1840, virtually all American toys were handcrafted. Examples of these early amusements include sock dolls, wooden jointed dolls, and whittled toys. Commercial tin toy production revolutionized the toy industry, beginning in earnest circa 1840 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Francis, Field and Francis (1838–ca. 1860), or the Philadelphia Tin Toy Manufactory, created a line of handcrafted and colorfully painted tin toys—such as trackless pull locomotives, carriages, and horse-drawn carts—as an offshoot of their existing product line of tin tablewares. Made of thin, tin-plated sheet steel, many of these toys resembled early tin toleware, with a dark ground and red, yellow, and green painted highlights. Shortly thereafter, other manufacturers, mainly in Connecticut (Fig. 1) and New York City, started producing tin toys, mostly stamped tin animals designed for pulling on four-wheeled bases, or horse and buggies.

With the Industrial Revolution’s advances in manufacturing, many hardware foundries turned to the production of cast-iron toys and banks to increase their revenue. Available primarily after the Civil War in shops and through catalogues, these new playthings presented consumers with a wider range of toys than was previously available. Both tin and cast-iron toys, however, tended to be expensive, and typically only the more affluent Victorian families could afford such extravagances. The emerging middle class of consumers also sought toys for their children, and advances in printing and lithography made many toys, games, and books available to an eager population.

Fig. 3: Tally Ho, Carpenter, Port Chester, NY, 1885. Cast iron. L. 28". Sotheby’s, The Estate of F.H. Griffith, December 9, 2000, lot 126. Courtesy of Sotheby’s, New York.

Most Victorian-era toys mirrored events in daily life, reinforcing defined gender roles. Girls learned about motherhood and domesticity from their dolls and tea sets while boys gained experience for their roles as providers and leaders with sporting equipment, automotives, and military toys. Many toys served a dual purpose of providing amusement and teaching important values. For instance, mechanical banks such as the Trick Pony (Fig. 2) performed various stunts as a means of depositing pennies while serving as an instrument by which Victorian-era parents could teach the virtues of industry and thrift. Although toys often had underlying instructional themes, Victorian parents also encouraged children to use their imaginations in play—mimicking a fire pumper racing through the streets, for example, with a new Pratt & Letchworth pumper complete with a toy fireman—an expanded outlook on childhood from preceding generations of parents who focused on the educational aspects of play.

Antique toys should not be considered collectibles, but should instead be recognized as fine crafted objects created by skilled designers and artisans of the nineteenth century. The hallmark of quality associated with these toys is evident in their durability, meticulously painted details and range of colors, and creativity. Their workmanship and styling make antique toys suitable accents to any collector’s home, whether placed on a sleek, ultramodern shelving unit or on a Philadelphia Chippendale dressing table. Displaying old toys on antique furniture enhances both the furniture and toys.

Fig. 1: Floor Train, George Brown Mfg., Meridan, CT, ca. 1875. Tin. L. (approx.) 24". Courtesy of the author.

Antique toy collecting can be an expensive proposition. A rare and finely preserved horse-drawn Tally Ho (Fig. 3) by Carpenter of Port Chester, New York, set a record when it sold for $66,300—quite a bit higher than the $4.98 wholesale price listed in an 1892 catalogue. Nevertheless, many beautiful antique toys can be found in the $500 to $1,500 price range. When collecting, it is important to remember that condition is probably the main factor affecting the value of an antique toy. Repaired or repainted toys, or those with missing or broken parts, are worth a fraction of the same toy in excellent, original condition. Two other factors that typically affect the value of an antique toy are rarity and aesthetics. Remember that even if a toy is rare, its value may depend on a pleasing design.

The market for antique toys is currently very strong, with private sale and auction results continuing to increase.1 Among the most popular antique toys are mechanical banks, in part because of their animated movements; cast-iron automotives and horse-drawn toys are also favored. The toy collector can choose to focus on many different aspects of the field. Some people seek the toys of a particular maker, while others choose to broaden a collection by purchasing various types of American toys from different eras and manufacturers. No matter what kind of collection you decide to assemble, toys are as timeless today as when they were first made. The fun and enjoyment is in searching for a fresh find, meeting other passionate collectors, learning about history, and reconnecting with the simplicities and pleasures of childhood.

Leon Weiss is cofounder of Gemini Antiques Ltd. of New York City and Bridgehampton, Long Island. The company specializes in antique toys, banks, and American folk art. He has collected antique toys and banks for over twenty-five years and is currently the President of the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America.

  1. The October 12, 2001, sale of the Hegarty collection at Sotheby’s, for example, had strong prices and an impressive 98.7 percent sold rate.

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