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HISTORY IS CHILD’S PLAY

At the Antique Toy Museum

BY GARY SHENFIELD, Northwest Orient Airlines Magazine, 1968

Leon Perelman, Antique Toy Museum, 1968United States history is mirrored in toys at the Perelman Antique Toy Museum in the old Society Hill section of Philadelphia.

Here, at 270 South Second St., just a few blocks from where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, is the Abercrombie House, built by Captain James Abercrombie, a colonial seaman, in 1758. Today the two-centuries old townhouse has been completely restored and has become a fitting setting for the display of more than a thousand Early American tin and cast-iron toys, as well as the world’s largest collection of mechanical toy banks.

The entire collection was assembled within a relatively short period by Leon J. Perelman, a native of Philadelphia who is president of American Paper Products, Inc., got interested in old toys ten years ago. On a Business trip to Iowa, he happened to wander into a hobby show. The mechanical banks displayed caught his eye and then caught his fancy. He immediately began canvassing antique shops and dealers. As a result, ten years later, he has amassed a huge, varied, and impressive collection.

Perelman’s first love was the banks — especially the ingenious mechanical ones with which our forefathers taught their children that it can be fun to be thrifty. "It didn’t take me long to discover that there are three different types of banks: common, good, and rare," says Perelman. "In a few years I had all the common and good banks, and a few rare ones. As it became more difficult to track down the mechanical banks, I diversified and became interested in tin and cast-iron toys — including fire engines, circus wagons, and mechanical cap pistols." Toys that move from the unifying theme of the entire collection.

"Pretty soon." Perelman continues, "my closets were filled. Then my attic was filled. By this time I numbered some 1500 items in my collection. The question was what to do with them.

"Well, one day, about three years ago, walking amidst the ruins of Society Hill, where restoration was in progress all around, I happened on the Abercrombie House. It was a mess, but I knew it could be attractively restored. I figured it would be interesting to natives and visitors alike as a historical landmark in its own right. And what could be more fitting as a toy museum than a house that antedated the American Revolution? I was determined to acquire the house so that I could share my collection, which is a part of our American heritage, with all who wanted to see it."

Perelman forthwith set about buying the house and overseeing its restoration. Now three years later, it’s a full fledged three-story museum, open to the public at a nominal charge every day from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The Perelman Antique Toy Museum is unique — nowhere else in the U.S. is there such a cross-section of Early American toys under one roof.

On the first floor, you will find the earliest tin toys and some of the rarest. Soldered by hand, most of them were hand-painted by girls in toy factories between 1840 and 1880. Here, for instance, you will see a clockwork tin buggy and horse. And as you wind it up and set it in motion, the legs of a hitchhiker flail back and forth in the back of the wagon.

On the second floor are more animated toys, mostly those made of cast iron. These animated toys date back to 1860 and some cost as much as $5,000 each. They include steam engines and bell-ringing fire engines. By looking at these vehicles, as well as police wagons and toy trains, you can get a pretty good idea of the development of land and water transportation in the United States.

Another mechanical device in which Perelman specializes, is the animated cap pistol. There are more than a hundred types on display. In one of them, the Punch and Judy, you put a cap in Judy’s back and pull the trigger, bringing down Punch, who puts his nose against her back and thereby explodes the cap. The Cat and the Claw features a cap that explodes from under the cat’s paw when you pull the trigger.

Less bellicose animated toys include a tiny replica of President U. S. Grant seated in a chair smoking his big black cigar — he puffs out smoke and turns his head. A little wind-up girl plays the piano, and a wind-up general marches jauntily to some imaginary battle.

The cream of the Perelman collection, and his special pride, is the group of mechanical banks that are displayed on the third floor of the museum. Of the 243 known types of mechanical banks that began appearing from 1867 on, Leon Perelman has acquired 225. Each of these banks was specially patented, and all were made in American foundries before World War I.

Here on the third floor, all sorts of tiny figures come to life when you put in a penny and press a lever: A girl skips rope, turning her head from side to side in time with the jumping. Jonah, safe in a small boat, shoots your penny into the whale’s mouth. A wee Teddy Roosevelt on safari in Africa responds to a penny placed in the muzzle of his rifle by shooting a lion as the penny drops into the bank. And so on — myriads of metal toy banks do their mechanical bowing, waving, and prancing when you feed them a penny.

Although the antiques in the museum are kept behind glass, children (and adults) are allowed to play with replicas of the mechanical banks, using the free pennies provided. That may be the only thing pennies are good for nowadays. You can’t do nearly as much with them today as you could back in the 1800’s, which is probably why children do not save them as assiduously. These toys themselves have felt the effect of inflation. Today replicas of old mechanical banks cost as much as $20 each, while the originals used to cast about a dollar in their day. With inflation, mechanical banks became less and less profitable to manufacture, so they just disappeared from the market — now even the replicas are scarce. You can usually tell the reproduction from the real thing by the date stamped on the base of the original, or by the way the paint has aged. Reproductions, Perelman points out, are usually larger and less painstakingly crafted than the originals.

Like all collectors, Perelman pursues his quest for the ever more rare perfect specimen. He attends estate sales, pores over old toy catalogs, and haunts antique shows. Presently he'’ in search of an exceedingly rare bank known as the Old Woman in the Shoe. (Perelman has this in a toy version but not as a bank.) It’s a large shoe, surrounded by a lot of children, with an old woman in the back. When you put in a coin and press the lever, the lever, the children all move and jostle each other.

Meantime the Museum continues to attract enthusiastic visitors. Children’s most frequently voiced query is, "Why can’t we have toys and banks like this today?" As for parents, Perelman declares, "I think they get a bigger kick out of the Museum than their children do. After all, some of these are toys they played with when they were young." And as he himself can testify, nostalgia is a very powerful human feeling.

 

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