Yes, it's true ... there was a time when children's toys actually sold for one penny!
They were small in size and sold primarily by street vendors at the turn of the century. The time frame for these gems of the collector's world ran from around 1890 to the mid 1930s, and to say they are priceless today is an understatement. Some rare examples have sold at auction in recent years in the five figure range. Penny toys were crafted from a variety of materials, including paper, wood, celluloid, cast iron, wire pressed card and tinplate. Prior to their introduction, most toys were only found in the homes of wealthy or middle class families. The introduction of penny toys opened up a vast new market for manufacturers. The goal of the producer was quantity, not quality, and therefore they did not hold up well under hard play, which means that examples in good condition are difficult to find today.
Bing car, A Bing clockwork two seat open tourer, circa 1904
Penny toys were produced in many countries, including Germany, France, Japan, Italy, Spain, Great Britain and the United States, but the early German-made lithographed tinplate toys are the most sought after by collectors. Nearly all of the German producers were based in Nuremberg, Bavaria, including one of the top makers, Johann Phillip Meier. This popular maker produced fine penny toys from 1879 until 1917. Their trademark depicts a dog pulling a sled. Other Nuremberg based makers included Georg G. Kellerman, Kleinberger & Co., Johann Distler and Gebruder Einfalt. A German firm by the name of Walter Stock produced penny toys for export to the U.S. market.
Cat & dog cart, a delightful fighting cat and dog toy by Meier, measuring 85 mm (3 ½ inches) in length
As with many antiques and collectibles that have appreciated greatly in value, penny toys are now widely reproduced. Modern printing methods have made it easy for companies to reproduce the colorful penny toys of the past, but careful examination can often reveal the difference of the old from the new. In the modern printing process that began around 1970, the original full color image is broken down or separated into only four plates: black, magenta, cyan and yellow. By printing these four colors as tiny dots, an infinite variety of colors can be created. However, under 10x magnification, the distinctive dot structure can be identified, which means it is certain to have been made since the late 1970s. This dot structure is never found in original lithographed tin plate. Another detection method used to determine age on lithographed toys is a black light. Many modern inks will fluoresce under long wave black light, where vintage inks will not. Caution is also required when examining the toy for trade marks, as the mark may or may not be authentic. David Pressland amassed a renowned collection of Penny toys that were put up for auction by Christie's four years ago. He has also authored two books on the subject and offers advice to new collectors Pressland suggests that you should always buy the best quality and condition you can afford, which usually proves to be a wise investment. Another excellent suggestion is to be careful in attempting to clean or restore a toy yourself. Cleaning with the wrong materials or touching up a toy with the hope of improving its appearance can seriously damage or devalue the toy. Pressland advises leaving the cleaning and repair to the professionals. He also said to avoid displaying the toys in sunlight or under ultraviolet light, which can quickly lead to color fading. If you buy the best and take care of the penny toys, this hobby can provide you with many hours of enjoyment and assure you of having a collection that matures in value.
Garage set, Parker Brothers Toy Town Garage in original box, rated as rare
Photo credits and captions: All photos courtesy of Christie's from the David Pressland collection.
Tags: Tin Toys