The Antique Toy Archive

Make a million from tin – it’s child’s play! – Jeffrey Levy

Telford Journal, Nov. 1990

TIN isn’t much to write about when it’s wrapped round baked beans. But turn it into a toy or biscuit tin, and it can become more expensive than gold!

This was proved recently when the firm Mint & Boxed sold a tinplate ‘Charles’ Hose Reeler – a toy version of an original fire fighting wagon – built of tin around 1870, for a million dollars.

The ‘Charles’, measuring 39cm by 58cm, has this been called the most important American toy. It’s certainly the most expensive, and it’s now the world’s first million dollar antique toy. It was made by George Brown.

Who on earth would pay such a sum for a tin toy? Strangely, it was not bought by an American. I would have bet on it staying in the good ol’ US of A, because the Yanks usually keep a tight reign on their products when it comes to collectables.

In fact something American is usually not so highly sought after in Europe, and vice versa; but the new owner of the ‘Charles’ resides somewhere in Germany.

Although used since the dawn of time, tin really only came into its own a collectable in the 19th century when production techniques enabled transfer printing to attractively decorate the surface.

Manufacturers were quick to realise the advertising and publicity value of such tinware, and soon tins were available for every conceivable product, from pharmaceuticals to hardware and food. The next step was the application of offset lithographic images on the surface of the tin. Thus even more detailed and intricate designs could be applied.

At around the same time, improved techniques in production enabled tins to be made in intricate shapes – and we saw the era of the tins that simulated fish, cars, cottages and so on, providing a delightful theme for future investors.

The combination also forged another popular collectable towards the end of the century – the biscuit tin.

The leaders here were the famous biscuit firm of Huntley and Palmers Limited of Reading and London. Their Reading shop was on the London-West Country-London stagecoach route, and opposite one of the stagecoach shops.

Passengers often popped into the shop for a supply of biscuits and in an effort to provide a packaging that not only kept the biscuits fresh but protected them, Huntley and Palmers had some airtight tins made up.

At first these were made by hand, but so successful was the idea that they were soon manufactured in quantity, and, with the newly-discovered production methods, they were produced in a wide variety of shapes and designs, the most popular possibly being a tin shaped like a set of books.

The same techniques, of course, were applied to children’s toys, and these also are sought-after collectables, particularly those of cars – and of course fire engines!

But if your pocket does not run to one million dollars, you can still build up an excellent collection of consumer tins – cigarettes, gramophone needles, ointments, pins, biscuits (more recent) and so on. Or, you could concentrate on just one of those themes.

Consumer tins from early this century rarely cost more than a few pounds, but as they attract more collectors and become more rare, the prices will appreciate rapidly.


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