Names can be deceiving. Penny toys, small colorful lithographed tin plate amusements, no longer cost a penny. First sold a century ago by street vendors, penny toys recently have taken on an air of respectability, which comes from appreciating up to 200,000 times their original value. In part that means collectors scour antiques shows for them, they're listed in pricey auction catalogs, a lavishly illustrated "coffee table" book is now available, and an exhibition will open in October at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.
Not bad for cheaply made and easily broken toys measuring no longer than 5 inches, which nobody expected to last. They were mass-produced largely by European factories between 1895 and the start of World War I. Offset color lithography, widely available by 1889, enabled fine detail and color to be applied to sheets of tin plate quickly and economically. Shapes were machine-cut and stamped and then assembled by unskilled workers, sometimes in cottage industries.
Children tired of penny toys quickly because they were hard to play with, consigning the tiny animals, horse-drawn carts, trains, boats, hot-air balloons, circus performers, skiers and soldiers to boxes or to display shelves.
Penny toys are being displayed again, this time by eager collectors who appreciate their variety, designs, and price appeal.
Smaller is cheaper
"I collected all sorts of full-size toys and trains . . . but they became so expensive that about four years ago I turned to penny toys and now have about 200," said Paul Cole, an automobile dealer in Bluefield, W. Va. While the finest and rarest large antique toys have fetched more than $200,000, these mini marvels are widely available from $50 to $2,000, sometimes less, at flea markets and garage sales.
Rarity, condition, design and fine lithography determine value. Early examples are preferred, since quality declined over time to keep prices in the penny range. Expect to pay more for ones that move, like dancing figures, rocking boats, tumbling acrobats or pecking birds.
Prices varied even a century ago, when Ernest King began keeping a log of the more than 1,700 penny toys he bought from London street vendors. Mr. King's peak year was 1904, when he purchased 219; November and December generally were his busiest buying months; new models probably were introduced for Christmas shoppers.
Rivaling Mr. King's cache, now housed at the Museum of London, is that of the American queen of penny toys, Lillian Gottschalk of Parkton, who has amassed more than 500 during the past 30 years. An expert on penny toy history and design, she's quick to point out common misconceptions.
"Penny toys did not all cost just one penny. They could be bought with the pennies in your pocket," she said. "I have some with original price stickers of 5, 10 and 15 cents."
Ms. Gottschalk's favorites are "complicated, colorful ones which do things." She has a tiny carousel that operates two balloons and two zeppelins, which swing and go round and round.
Penny toys sometimes came in sets, boxed like games, and there are whistles, clickers, banks and candy containers, too. Tin plate was typical, but plaster, paper, wood, lead, cast iron and celluloid also were used. Penny toys were popular when cars, trucks, planes and dirigibles were new, and the public sought out matchbox-size models. Other forms, such as highchairs, baby strollers, sewing machines and gramophones, were made for dolls'houses.
Book of toys
An astounding variety of designs is evident in more than 600 fine quality photos in "The Book of Penny Toys," by collector David Pressland, recently published in England by New Cavendish Press (available for $55.40 postpaid from P.E.I. International, 5245 Baywater Drive, Tampa, Fla. 33615).
The book is organized by material and subject, then capped by a brief history of major manufacturers, photos of trademarks, and reproductions of vintage wholesale catalog pages. Close-ups of wheels are included to help attribute penny toys to specific makers, for until 1914 each used its own special designs. Mr. Pressland cautions that attributions can be tricky since sometimes when one wheel broke, all four were replaced with ones from other penny toys. While some models on the market have been assembled from old parts, so far penny toys generally haven't been faked or reproduced.
Some collectors said they study the photos in Mr. Pressland's book and then try to find toys like those illustrated. Mr. Cole owns several not in the book: "I have a lady pushing a child in an old-time sleigh, while Pressland pictures a similar lady pushing a child in a stroller."
The finest manufacturers, such as Meier, JW Spear & Sohne, Hess, and Johann Distler, were located in Nuremberg, Germany. Others were in England, France and Spain. Mixed media and celluloid penny toys were made in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s, often copying earlier German designs. Americans were big buyers of penny toys. Parker Bros. of Salem, Mass., was a major importer.
Ornaments and souvenirs
"Penny toys are ideal for creating miniature scenes," Ms. Gottschalk suggests. "That was their original purpose." Often they were displayed under the Christmas tree or as ornaments and then stored away. "Many are found in fine condition because they came out just once a year," she said.
Ms. Gottschalk believes penny toys also came in Cracker Jack boxes, and others were given away at movie theaters. "I have some marked 'Universal Theaters Concession Co. of Chicago,' and others which were premiums from the C. D. Kenny Coffee and Tea Company in Baltimore," she noted. Many more may have come from "grab machines" at penny arcades, where it cost a cent for a chance at picking up a toy with tongs from a bowl filled with gum balls.
At Noel Barrett's June auction in New Hope, Pa., of the Siegel game and toy collection, two tin plate penny toys each fetched $1,760: One was the figure of a boy in a hoop measuring 3 inches in diameter, the other, a rare, 4-inch tall lever-action toy of a boy playing diabolo, a balancing game with a spool, string and two sticks. A racing car missing its hood and a town car, both brightly lithographed, sold as one lot for $660. Others included a climbing monkey ($357), a tower with two airplanes circling above ($269.50), a soccer player ($209), and a turtle and lady bug (together $121).