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Published December 17, 2010, 12:00 AM

Kovels Antiques: Tin toy market came from rise of middle class

Because the 19th-century industrial revolution resulted in new technology and the creation of a middle class, the invention of tin toys was possible and profitable.

By: Terry Kovel, INFORUM

Because the 19th-century industrial revolution resulted in new technology and the creation of a middle class, the invention of tin toys was possible and profitable.

Earlier toys had been made of wood, fabric or ceramics. Tin toys were made in the early years of the 19th century in Germany, England and France. The J. Hess Co. was founded in Germany in 1826. Other German toy companies, including Marklin, Bing and Lehmann, soon started up, too.

Tin toys were first made in the United States in the early 1830s. By the 1860s, many U.S. companies were producing the toys. In fact, the years from 1865 to 1895 are called the “Golden Age of American Tin Toys.” By the 1890s, German and French toymakers were realizing that tin toys were popular in the United States. They made large numbers of toys and pictured them in sales catalogs that now help collectors identify the makers.

American toys were less complicated and more amusing than European examples. Toys then, as now, chronicled the everyday life of children. One popular Hess toy was a windup toy shaped like a boy on a sled. Turn the key and the sled scoots across the floor. It was made in several different color combinations. The boy might have a red, green or yellow jacket. Other companies made a very similar boy-on-sled toy. All date from about 1915.


Q: I have a Frister & Rossman treadle sewing machine mounted on a maple stand. It has a crank that can be operated by foot or hand. The scrollwork on the machine is beautiful. Ironwork on the bottom spells out “Original.” Can you tell me more about the machine?

A: Robert Frister and Gustav Rossmann started making sewing machines in Berlin in the mid-1860s. Their first machines were licensed copies of American machines made by Wheeler & Wilson and Willcox & Gibbs. Frister & Rossmann was the largest producer of sewing machines in Germany for decades, and new sewing machines with the Frister & Rossmann brand name are still being sold.


Q: I have a dessert serving set that was given to me by a great-aunt in the 1950s. There is a circular mark on the bottom of the dishes enclosing the word “Shofu” in large capital letters surrounded by the words “Made in Japan.” Can you tell me who made this set and how old it is?

A: The history of Shofu is confusing. Shofu Kajo or Shofu Katei (1870 to 1928) made porcelain in Kyoto, Japan, beginning in 1890. He founded the Shofu Ceramics Co. in 1908 and began importing ceramics. There still is a company called Shofu in Kyoto. It was incorporated in 1922 by Kajo Shofu III and is still in business making porcelain dentures.

The words “Made in Japan” are a clue to the years when the mark on your dessert set was used. On its ceramics exports, Japan used the word “Nippon” (a transliteration of “Japan”) as its country name until 1921. After 1921, the U.S. government forced Japanese exporters to use the word “Japan” in their marks. Pieces made in Japan from 1947 to 1952 are marked “Made in Occupied Japan.” Your dessert set was made between 1921 and 1941 or in the early 1950s.


Q: Are armadillo baskets really made out of armadillo “skin,” or are they just made to look like an armadillo? When were they made?

A: Armadillo baskets are made from the hard “shell” of the nine-banded armadillo, one of the many varieties of armadillos. Usually the finished baskets are varnished; some have cloth linings. Charles Apelt (1862-1944), a German immigrant basket-maker who lived on a farm in Texas, noticed that the shell of an armadillo he had killed and skinned curled up into a basket shape as it dried.

He started the Apelt Armadillo Co. in Comfort, Texas, in 1898 and began to make baskets from the shells. Handles were formed by looping the long tail over and wiring it to the basket.

Armadillo baskets became popular after they were shown at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. The company made baskets, purses, lamps and other items from armadillo shells until it closed in 1971.

Armadillos have been used to conduct research on leprosy. For a while, some people thought owning an armadillo basket was dangerous because armadillos carried leprosy, but it has been proven that very few of the animals carry the disease and it can’t be transferred unless a person eats the undercooked meat. A basket in good shape sells for about $50 to $100, depending on its size and lining.


Q: I have a 7-foot-diameter dining table with beautiful inlay. I would love to use it without pads and tablecloth, but am petrified to do so. Design magazines often show wood tables set for a meal directly on the wood surface. I know from experience that setting anything remotely warm on a bare table leaves white marks. Are placemats or chargers sufficient for plates? What about salt cellars, other condiment dishes, crystal wine glasses or bowls of flowers?

A: The pictures in the magazine may look attractive, but you should protect your table with placemats or a tablecloth if you are serving anything hot, cold or wet. Be sure to use a pad under the tablecloth or placemats, unless they are already padded. Trivets should be used under serving dishes to make sure heat doesn’t penetrate the pad.


Current prices

Current prices are recorded from antiques shows, flea markets, sales and auctions throughout the United States. Prices vary in different locations because of local economic conditions.

  • Southern Pacific Lines deck of cards, fabric-covered box, photos of various landmarks, including Yosemite Falls, Fisherman’s Wharf, 1930, $85.
  • Cab driver’s hat, white fabric, “Al’s Cab” on front, with 1950s Minnesota licensed chauffeur button, black plastic visor, 7½ inches, $115.


For more information about antiques and collectibles and free price information, visit Kovel’s website, www.kovels.com.

Kovel answers as many questions as possible through the column. By sending a letter with a question, you give full permission for use in the column or any Kovel forum. We cannot guarantee the return of any photograph, but if a stamped envelope is included, we will try. The volume of mail makes personal answers or appraisals impossible. Write to Kovel, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th St , New York, NY 10019.

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