Toys in the attic: April show features playthings of the past


April 11, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

Collectors are proudly showing off pictures of their kids this week. They're also displaying children's old playthings, furniture, clothing, china and carriages. The organizers of the 1993 Philadelphia Antiques Show are betting the charm of childhood will attract crowds. "Seen but not Heard," a display of three centuries of American childhood antiques from museums and private collections, is an exhibition at the show, which runs from Saturday to April 21 and draws dealers and shoppers from throughout the country. Several dealers, expecting the loan exhibit to stimulate interest, are taking child-related antiques to sell.

Displayed in an oversized doll's house to make viewers see items through child-like eyes, the exhibition is a glimpse into the everyday lives of children from the Pilgrim era to the late 19th century. No Barbie dolls here. "Our aim is to show how attitudes toward young children changed through the centuries,"

explained co-curator Joan Johnson, who collects early American folk art.

Some think it's surprising such a serious antiques show is mounting such a playful display. Others wonder where curators found enough high quality early American children's things. Not many artifacts survive, since American children played vigorously with their toys and their furniture took hard knocks. As a result, few dealers or collectors specialize in the category. "I don't collect children's things per se," Ms. Johnson commented, "but when I look around my collection, so much was made for, or is about, children."

Paintings of children figure prominently in the exhibition and among the dealers' offerings. "One thing I like about children's portraits is they're portrayed with their things," observed Raymond Egan, a pharmaceutical executive who lent four naive American pictures to the exhibit. One, a circa 1840 double portrait of "William Wood, aged 2 1/4 , and George Albert, aged 4 1/2 " by Sturtevant J. Hamblin, shows the younger boy holding a book and wearing a toddler's long frock. His older brother, clasping a pony whip, already is wearing breeches.

Dealer Robert Schwarz of Philadelphia is asking $22,500 for a sentimental painting of a late-Victorian interior by Edward Lamson Henry, featuring a young girl holding a doll, leading her ++ frail grandmother down a staircase, preceded by a cat. Ruth Troiani, from Avon, Conn., is offering two silhouettes, each dated 1841, by Augustin Edouart. One, made in Washington, is of a young girl, Hester Tayloe; the other, made in Boston, shows a little boy, George MacKean Folsom. Ms. Troiani also is featuring the quintessential artifact of childhood education, a horn book. Made of bone, circa 1800, it has an incised alphabet on one side. (Earlier ones were paddle-shaped pieces of wood covered with printed paper and a transparent layer of horn.)

Children's furniture and tableware from the 17th through early 19th centuries typically were perfectly scaled miniatures of adult objects. When looking at photos, it's hard to tell what's what without knowing the dimensions.

Cradles and walkers

Until the 19th century, children generally were treated as imperfect miniature adults, with no concessions to their immaturity. Babies were swaddled tightly from birth so limbs would grow straight. They spent early months encased like mummies in cradles, which were rocked incessantly to lull them to sleep; no easy task for infants being jabbed by crude straight pins holding together wet swaddlings in the pre-Pampers era. An early 18th-century Lancaster County, Pa., cradle in the exhibit, with cut-out heart decoration and 19th-century sponge-painted graining, has large rockers for motion.

Crawling generally was considered bestial and not tolerated in 17th- and 18th-century America, so babies were placed upright in walkers as soon as they were mobile. Early walkers, on casters, have plain square bases with simple turnings and a waist ring (sometimes padded) into which the infant was placed. By the 19th century, when play became an important part of a child's upbringing, some walkers were ingenious contraptions: The convertible circa 1878 Nichols Child's Chair on exhibit was a walker, high-chair and rocking horse in one.

Not all the dealers will have child-related items. Some claim they can't find children's antiques good enough to sell; others insist there's no market. Folk art dealers James and Nancy Glazer of Philadelphia disagree. They regularly offer childhood artifacts to eager buyers.

"There's something very poignant about children's things," commented Ms. Glazer. "When collecting dolls' quilts, adult rules don't apply," she observed. "The most loved and played-with quilts often are the best. And, when a child has stitched it, it's easy to imagine a mother's teaching her daughter to sew with scraps from her own large quilt."

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