Playing around with vintage toys.

People collect vintage and antique toys for a variety of reasons. Some people like the reminder of their childhood days. Others admire the quality that was once a hallmark of American manufacturing. Still others appreciate the way history was depicted in children’s playthings.

Vintage tin horse-drawn Conestoga wagon Photo courtesy of RedRavenCollectibles on Etsy

Vintage tin horse-drawn Conestoga wagon Photo courtesy of RedRavenCollectibles on Etsy

Whatever the reason, toy collecting has always been popular, and remains so.

But not all toys are collectible.
So how do you know which ones are worth purchasing, keeping or selling?

Toys are typically thrown away once a child has outgrown them. Still others have been broken or destroyed by being left out in the elements. The remaining toys may or may not be valuable, and those that were originally on the expensive side have the best chance of surviving a generation or two.

Rarity: The number one factor.
When it comes to vintage toys, rarity is the most important criterion.
Remember Cabbage Patch dolls? They were created in 1979 by Xavier Roberts, along with the “adoption certificate” idea. Three years later they went mass market when Coleco purchased the rights to make the dolls, starting the famous collecting frenzy. As a result, there are a gazillion “original” Cabbage Patch dolls out there today.
It’s those Xavier Roberts versions that have the most value, since they were purchased for their adorableness, not as investments. They have been known to bring in $1,000 price tags – nothing like the $10 to $30 of their Coleco cousins.

1978 Xavier Roberts Cabbage Patch dollPhoto Courtesy of Caleb Murdock, AntiqueBazaar on Etsy

1978 Xavier Roberts Cabbage Patch doll
Photo Courtesy of Caleb Murdock, AntiqueBazaar on Etsy

Age: Not as important as with other collectibles.
Most American toys were made after 1880, making age less important than it is with, say, furniture. Toys made after 1890 almost always have the country of manufacture marked somewhere. While age isn’t essential, it’s always nice to know.
I’ve seen this Madame Alexander “Little Women” doll listed as a 1950s model. However, the booklet that came with her is dated 1966.

Condition is (almost) everything.
To be considered “mint,” the toy must come with its original packaging and be in perfect condition.
However, since they are toys, it’s extremely rare to find mint pieces. “Good” is often good enough for collectors. An official grading scale has been developed to help people judge the condition of old toys.

This Bakelite Viewmaster 3-D is not “mint” even though it’s in its original box. The accompanying slide packages, also in original packaging, are not store-shelf fresh. But it could be “Fine” (C7) to “Excellent” (C8) — and that counts for a lot.

Viewmaster 3-D Model E in original box with slides

Viewmaster 3-D Model E in original box with slides

Normal wear and tear is acceptable; however, bad repainting and repairs can reduce the value by half!

Fakes and reproductions.
It can cost an awful lot of money to reproduce a vintage toy. As a result, fakes aren’t as common as they are in other areas, such as furniture, glassware and jewelry. But they do exist. Here are just a few things to watch out for:

Genuine antique metal toys should feel smooth, with no rough edges. Reproductions can feel like sandpaper.
Look for tight seams in joints. Reproductions are almost always a bit loose.
Older metal toys were painted with a dark forest (not Kelly) green, and pink was virtually never used. The paint should be thick and bright.
Rust should be dark, almost black. Red rust indicates a newer date.
Philips-head screws weren’t in common use before 1940 or so. If they’re present, be suspicious! You should see ordinary flat-head screws.
Look for the company address on packaging. If it shows a ZIP code instead of a zone, the toy was made after 1963.
Screws should be flush with the body of the toy. If you can remove one, look for evidence of spray painting on the inside.
Examine the piece under black light. Modern paints will fluoresce (glow); older paints should not.

Old toy catalogues are also collectible, and they can prove invaluable in your research. Several are available online and encompass many years.

A good toy collection can make any home brighter and more fun. And, like other antiques, it connects us all to the past, making the past come alive in a way that no dull history book can!

About sarathurston

I'm a marketing communications writer who also loves antiques and collectibles. You can find my shop on Etsy at
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1 Response to Playing around with vintage toys.

  1. kathy says:

    Very informative, thank you!

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