Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A, B, C, D, E, F, G...

QUESTION: My grandfather gave my parents a wooden child’s chair, covered with letters, that he had when he was a kid for me to use. I remember singing the alphabet song while sitting in the chair, and that’s pretty much how I learned my ABC’s. My grandfather is gone now, but I still have the chair. Can you tell me anything about this chair?

ANSWER: What you have is a wooden alphabet chair with lithographed letters of the alphabet decorating it. If your chair is in really good condition—many of these are not—then you have something of some value.

Lithographed toys range from dollhouses to acrobat figures to nests of blocks to an array of boats, horse-drawn carriages, and trains. Collectors value for their often substantial size, handsome graphics, and careful attention to precise details.

Of the three types of lithographed toys—tin, wood, and cardboard—the latter two have vibrant, two-dimensional details printed on paper that’s combined with a three-dimensional shape. Collectors appreciate the intimacy and color of these hand-drawn but mechanically printed designs.

Before the development of chromolithography—the process of printing a color picture from a series of lithographic plates—by German printers in the 1840s, toys had to be handmade. So most toys were too expensive for all but wealthier people. Less affluent families had to make do with homemade toys.

By the 1870s, French, English, and American firms had patented chromolithography production methods, which offset designs from inked sheets or rollers onto toy surfaces. By the 1890s, they had standardized the process, and both the American and European toy industries were able to mass-produce colorful toys inexpensively. In time, American toymakers, such as Rufus Bliss, John McLoughlin, and Parker Brothers, refined the technique and became world-leading toy manufacturers.

Production of all three types of lithographed toys ran from the late 19th century into the early 20th. But just as horse and steam power gave way to the internal combustion engine, production of wood and cardboard lithographed toys waned as technology developed. By the 1920s, after ore became available for cast-iron toys, manufacturers found metal better suited for mass production and that lightweight tin could more easily house clockworks and springs than wood.

The mass production of toys came at a time when parents were beginning to view their children less as miniature adults to be instructed and more as children to be entertained as well as taught.

Numerous wood lithographed replicas of horse-drawn fire engines, prairie schooners, steamboats, and luxury side-wheeler river steamers paralleled a strong interest in the rapidly changing modes of transportation at the turn-fo-the-20th-century.

Today wooden lithographed toys are available at auctions; estate sales, and flea markets. Because of their fragility, however, it’s difficult to find examples in excellent condition. Those that have survived the years are worth from $50 to $4,000, depending on size, condition, and rarity. Since your alphabet chair is of the larger variety, it’s worth more, depending on its condition.

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