NEW YORK — Toys that make noise are not new. The beeping, squawking, headache-inducing modern renditions are invariably made from plastic, but antique pull toys featuring bells seem (and sound) positively sedate by comparison, and the passage of time has rendered them charming rather than annoying. Examples fashioned from cast iron or tin call to mind the times when such things were handmade, and their craftsmanship and sense of whimsy renders them delightful to collectors.
These toys, typically set on a metal platform or placed directly on wheels, like a bicycle, were brightly painted. They took the forms of drummer boys, circus clowns teaching a dog tricks, a pair of goats pushing a cart, elephants pushing a ball and more. Each featured at least one bell that pealed when the toy moved. Attention to detail is evident in the figures’ actions and also in the wheels. These antique pull toys didn’t settle for solid, round wheels; they boasted articulated spokes or heart-shape interior patterns that were not only functional but highly artistic.
Some of the leading American toy manufacturers started making bell toys around the 1880s and 1890s. According to Kovels, the first to do so was the Gong Bell Mfg. Company, which was founded in 1866 in East Hampton, Conn. It made many fine examples, including a now rarely-seen Surf Boat bell toy in cast iron with hand-painted tin. This toy pictured two fishermen balancing their weight on a boat that sways up and down as if it’s on choppy waters. A late 1880s model of the toy made $9,500 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2021 at the RSL Auction Company. “Any serious-minded cast iron toy collector knows exactly how rare this exquisite bell ringer is,” the auctioneers stated.
Bell toys that could be pushed or pulled were designed to help young children strengthen their balance and encourage them as they learned to walk. Drummers were a popular design, and Gong Bell issued a notable Drummer Boy toy in the 1880s that depicted a drum major hitting the bell with his sticks. The figure stands in an open carriage sporting fancy spoke wheels and an eagle finial on the front, as if it is a hood ornament. An early 1890s example measuring 10½in long sold for $7,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022 at the RSL Auction Company.
The Connecticut firm had several competitors in the American market for bell toys, including the Althof, Bergmann & Company, which was active in New York City from about 1867 to 1880. Althof, Bergmann & Company was celebrated for its painted clockwork toys, and its product line ran the gamut from bell toys and still banks to horse-drawn carriages. An interesting example, attributed in part to this firm, is an unsigned circa-1870s tin bell toy that brought $7,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2021 at the RSL Auction Company.
The maker of this unusual toy, comprised of a horse pulling two figures striking bells in a carriage, was difficult to attribute as it reflects the styles and features of two different producers, according to the auctioneers. The RSL Auction Company said the horse and the figures match the style of Merriam Mfg., while the wheels and the bells as well as the drive mechanism contained in the red tin drum are likely from Althof, Bergmann & Company. “Collaboration in early toy making happened a lot more frequently than previously imagined … In any case, this is a fascinating toy in great original condition,” the auction house said in its catalog description for this antique.
Toys with patriotic themes have long been popular, and bell toys are no exception. A compelling example is the Miss Liberty bell toy by Kyser & Rex, one of which sold for $9,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2021 at Bertoia Auctions. This classic Americana toy shows the figure of Liberty standing on an elaborate platform that has a sizable bell topped with an eagle finial and ornate heart-shape wheels. A large hammer at the back moves up to strike the bell when the toy is pulled. Kyser & Rex was based in Frankfort, Penn. and lasted just 20 years, from 1879-1899, so surviving toys in good condition bearing its brand are especially desirable.
Circus toys have formidable crossover appeal, drawing circus collectors as well as toy collectors. A bell toy showing a circus rider or acrobat with a horse went for $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2023 at Bertoia Auctions. It was made by James Fallows & Sons, which opened for business in Philadelphia about 1870. The 7in-long toy is painted maroon red, and as it sways back and forth, the clappers hit the large bell in the center of the base.
Bell toys are still produced today, but those mass-produced cotton candy-colored objects bear little resemblance to their sophisticated and elegant predecessors that reigned until the mid-1900s, when plastics became the material of choice. The best antique bell toys are bright, beautiful and skillfully made, qualities that help them attract and hold a loyal following of collectors.