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Antique toys: not just for kids

By Maria LenhartSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 16, 1980

Marlboro, N. H.

Some 23 years ago Bernard Barenholtz was faced with a familiar dometic dilemma: what to get his wife for her birthday? After consulting his children, he learned that she had admired a 19th-century toy, a horse-drawn milk wagon made of tin, that she had seen in a New York antique shop.

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The purchase of the little blue wagon not only delighted Mrs. Barenholtz, but it started her husband on the way of building one of the world's great collections of American antique toys. With his background as a noted toy designer (he is a cofounder of the firm Creative Playthings) and connoisseur of American antiques and folk art, he quickly, perhaps inevitably, became fascinated by the exquisitely made tin and cast-iron toys of the last century.

The visual delight and rich mine of social history that his collection encompasses is the subject of a stunning new book, "American Antique Toys" (Abrams, New York). Written in collaboration with another toy expert, Inez McClintock, it traces Mr. Barenholtz's amusing, often painstaking collecting experiences. It also imparts a solid overview of the history of American toys and the children who played with them. Accompanying the text are sumptuous photographs of the collection by Bill Holland.

Mr. Barenholtz's remarkable collection is in an octagonal gallery attacked to his late 18th-century farmhouse in southwestern New Hampshire. But at almost any time of year a large portion of the toys are on exhibit at museums across the United States -- 200 of them can be seen at the Laumeir Sculpture Park in St. Louis through Jan. 4.

Displayed on the shelves lining his gallery are numerous small wonders of Americana. Adorning one of the stark white walls are rows of gorgeously painted cast-iron carriages, each pulled by tiny horses and carrying grand passengers in fashionable array. Among his mechanical banks are ingenious devices designed to encourage saving: In one a penny is put into the hand of a baseball pitcher, who pitches it to a batter, who, in turn, hits it into the globe of the catcher behind him; in another the coin is given to a confectioner who rewards the saver with a piece of chocolate.

In different corners are wooden whirligigs, among them a primative Uncle Sam whose paddle arms revolve with the wind; stacks of lithographed picture blocks; and clockwork, or "wind up," toys, one featuring another version of Uncle Sam peddling a tricycle-like vehicle called a velocipede.

Except for one small corner on the gallery's second floor, the collection spans the years from 1830 to 1900. The exception is an assemblage of metal robots and space toys made in Japan between 1950 and 1970. These, he believes, are the collectible antique toys of the future.

"Virtually any toys, once they stop being made, become collectible," Mr. Barenholtz says as he pauses to wind a black robot whose top secton splits apart to reveal a hissing, fluorescent red head as it walks. "The toys of the 1930s, especially anything with Mickey Mouse, are now highly sought after. Today's plastic toys are destined to go the same route -- especially since the supply of plastic, which is produced from oil, is limited."

Although his concentration is on 19th-century toys, he doesn't think there is a fundamental difference between antique toys and those made today. "The difference is basically in technology and the materials used. For centuries children have learned to walk with push toys and have played with rattles. Toys have always introduced children to the world of work and transportation; the horse-drawn fire engine toys of the 1800s have simply been replaced by the sleek , motorized ones of today."

But although toys have not changed a great deal, their availability to children has. As outlined in "American Antique Toys," before the mid-19th century toys were for wealthy children only. While the children of lower-class Americans labored on farms or in factories, the children of the rich had playthings costing as much as $4 -- the equivalent weekly wage of many 19 th-century workers.