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.
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.
"If you gave me a group of antique toys from the same period and let me study them, I could probably tell you what like was like in that society," says Mr. Barenholtz, who enjoys the historical research involved with toy collecting. "For example, the abundance of patriotic toys produced during the centennial -- those with flags, eagles, Uncle Sams, Mill Liberties -- says a great deal about the patriotic mood of the nation at that time."
When asked if he has a favorite toy, Mr. Barenholtz reluctantly admits to a certain special fondness for Uncle Sam on a velocipede. Like many others in his collection, it was not easy to come by, requiring several years of patient waiting and careful negotiating between the time he located it and the time he owned it.
"American Antique Toys" is full of collecting anecdotes, such as the time Mr. Barenholtz heard a rumor abou the existence of a prize toy collection in a small town in Pennsylvania. After scouting the town to no avail for clues as to who owned the toys, he knocked on the door of the local garbage collector, who, it turned out, had saved a roomful of vintage toys from a sad end at the town dump. From this meeting Mr. Barenholtz acquired a new collector friend and was later able to buy a few of his toys.
Many of the anecdotes reveal that much of the collection was not gathered by purchasing, but by trading. "To serious collectors money is often less desirable than the chance to acquire a great toy," he explains. "There are times when you can't buy a toy at any price, but you can acquire it if you can offer another one in its place."
Since the time Mr. Barenholtz began collecting in the late 1950s, the prices of antique toys have skyrocketed. Some particularly rare items are fetching thousands of dollars.
"I think it is impossible to gauge the value of any toy -- it can only be determined by what a collector is willing to pay," he says. "I recently read of a rare German boat that sold for six figures. But that was really just because a certain collector felt it was worth it. Other collectors may not have offered
Despite such high prices, Mr. Barenholtz does not believe that one must be wealthy to start a collection or that all of the desirable toys have been snapped up by collectors. "I hear all the time about rare toys turning up at flea markets for $10 or $15. It's true that collecting has gotten much more difficult, but there are still some great things out there, undiscovered. That's what keeps it exciting."
What advice would he give to someone who wants to start a collection of antique toys? "I always tell young people that they must not buy anything until they have seen and studied a great number of toys. That means going to museums, talking to knowledgeable dealers, and reading extensively. Beyond that it's a matter of getting a feel for the toys, of finding out what determines quality.
"Then once they are ready to buy, I tell them that they should buy the very best they can afford. An antique dealer once told me that it's far better to put $20 in one good piece than the same amount in several inferior or mediocre ones. Quality will always remain quality, while the inferior will always be inferior."
When determining quality, Mr. Barenholtz says he considers factors such as rarity and condition of the toy to be of prime importance. "But even more than that, successful collecting involves an intuitive feeling, something that almost makes the toy jump off the shelf and into your hands."
And that, as is evident from the splendid array encircling his gallery, is more than just child's play.