By MICHAEL J. CLARK
There are hundreds of toy
collectors across the country who busy themselves with trips to antique
shows, odds and ends shops, local hobby fairs and every other likely mart
in hopes of adding to their collections.
Any collector would be hard put, however, to match the toy collection
of Philadelphia's Leon J. Perelman. His efforts have resulted in the
acquisition of some of the finest examples of toy-making craftsmanship
ever assembled under one roof.
Twist the key and oarsman frantically rows the boat. Circa 1869.
between Bossie's legs, press lever just below neck-and milker goes
flying, as does coin-right into the cow.
Manufactured by Stevens about 1888.
Perelman, a partner in American
Paper Products Company, started collecting antique toys after a visit to a
hobby show while on a business trip to Iowa in the mid-1950's. Today, over
2000 toys later, Perelman has a collection that will probably never be
surpassed in scope, uniqueness nor rarity.
The real stars of his show, in both his eyes and those of the public,
are the mechanical banks which are so avidly sought by collectors today.
Earliest designs were patented in 1865. Two years later production
and marketing techniques brought the first mechanical banks onto the
market. Their popularity lasted until approximately 1902
— a span of 35 years.
In recent years, some toy firms have produced replicas of these old
mechanical banks. Though lacking much of the fine detail of the originals,
they still sell for as much as $20 on the retail market. Back in the
1800's, the most ingenious models could be bought for less than $5.
Of the 243 known types of mechanical banks made during their heyday,
225 different kinds are displayed by Perelman at his special museum
located in the heart of Philadelphia. Each mechanical bank on display,
most made from cast iron, performs a stunt or otherwise operates through
One bank shows a woman, grinning broadly, with outstretched hand.
Place a penny in the hand, press a button and the coin pops into her
Another mechanical bank shows a hunter aiming a gun at a bear. The
gun fires a coin into the animal.
The William Tell Bank uses a real cap which explodes noisily when
William Tell fires a penny at the apple on his son's head.
There's a Jonah and the Whale Bank in which Jonah, safe in a little
boat, feeds a coin (instead of himself) into the whale.
Another bank, patriotically called Uncle Sam Bank, depicts the grand
old gent nodding his head as if to say "Thank you," after a coin is placed
in his outstretched hand and deposited in a suitcase.
The mechanical banks, masterpieces of craftsmanship and imagination,
provided a pleasant way of saving money generations ago. The coin
receptacles were created to lure children into the habit of thrift by
their curiosity to see the bank work. It was a sugar-coated method of
saving that appealed not only to the children, but apparently to adults
who purchased them in great quantities.
Besides the mechanical banks, Perelman has inanimate or still toy
banks made of iron, porcelain, glass, wood, pottery and tin
— all popular from the 1840’s on.
Some of the toys trace better than history books, the way Americans
felt about issues of that time. For example, the digging of the Panama
Canal inspired a number of types. One was a dump truck bearing the simple
legend "Panama" on its side. Toy vehicles, dolls, soldiers, all manner of
contrivances followed the events of our national progress
— often by no more than weeks.
Included among Perelman's extensive collection of toy cap pistols is
one made in the 1900's when Chinese laborers were pouring through opened
immigration gates, often forcing native-born Americans out of work through
a willingness to accept less pay.
"The Chinese Must Go," reads the inscription on the grip of a small
toy gun. On top of the barrel, two figures — one
decidedly Oriental, the other with American features —
are standing one behind the other. When the trigger is pulled, the front
figure is kicked in the seat of his trousers by the other fellow. A cap,
secreted in the Oriental's britches, goes off with startling
Another highlight of the collection is an Ives "O" gauge elevated
clockwork train on pillars, circa 1890. It’s
considered the prototype of electrically-powered trains that appeared
shortly after electricity came into common use.
game of football delighted children of yesteryear as well as those
of today. Press the button under kicker's right foot and he swings around
boots a long one. String on ball keeps it handy. Beneath, a bank that had
origin during the Women's Rights Movement-back in the days when women
were looking for the right to vote. This particular bank is British and
from about 1913. There was no bank produced in America for Women's
Rights similar to this one. Penny in slot; out she pops. Below, what
boy in 1900 didn't want his very own Zeppelin or airship?
Perelman has collected trains
dating up to 1900. Not to compete with model trains buffs who collect a
more recent vintage, he has restricted his pursuit to those made in the
Some of the old-time toy manufacturers had ideas of astounding
originality as evidenced by an 1890 mechanical bathtub whale that wiggles
its tail and spouts water. There are animated whales on the toy market
today, but none like that wiggling spouter!
The collection includes a rare galloping horse, circa 1884, and a
clockwork tin buggy and horse. As you wind it up and set it in motion, the
legs of a little hitchhiker flail back and forth from the back of the
There's also a toy clown, circa 1882. When wound up, he rides a
bicycle around in a circle with a monkey on his back. There's also a
little tin dog which, when wound, beats a tattoo on a small drum.
Possibly the best feature of the amazing collection is its
availability to the public. The Perelman Antique Toy Museum, opened two
years ago, is located in the neighborhood of where the Declaration of
Independence was signed. Run by Mrs. Rose Sill, herself a toy collector
and historian, the museum is an outstanding example of what a dedicated
toy buff can accomplish in a relatively short time.
Mrs. Sill is quick to encourage toy collecting, remarking that there
are hundreds of thousands of undiscovered toy treasures in attics and
basements all over America.
For the convenience of viewers, toys in the Perelman Antique Toy
Museum are arranged systematically throughout the small, three-story
structure. First floor display cases include early American tin toys.
Soldered by hand, most of them were hand-painted by girls in toy factories
between 1840 and 1880. Toys on the second floor are more animated and date
back to the 1860’s. Some "classics" in this display are valued at more
than $5000. These include vintage steam engines and bell-ringing fire
engines. The third floor contains the toy banks.
The museum, open daily, admits visitors for a very nominal fee.
Collector or potential collector passing through the City of Brotherly
Love will surely find these toys of a bygone era a significant,
entertaining and wholly rewarding experience in the realm of Americana.
Toys are generally displayed in glass cases. In foreground are toy cap
pistols; above and along the walls are toys representing methods of
transportation. At right below, a display case containing steam
1870 to 1900.
Sill, museum curator and her son, William demonstrate
mechanical banks. Every patron is invited to see and work the
banks before viewing those on display.