The rattle, one of the first and most basic toys any child
ever has, was elevated in Georgian times into an object of great craftsmanship and value.
The care and craftsmanship that was lavished on making rattles was not so much for the benefit of the baby as it was in celebration of the wealth and good fortune of the proud parents.
It seems that parents have always known that being a tiny, helpless baby can be a pretty boring affair.
Ancient Greeks and Romans realized that lying around for hours on end, feeling their teeth grow, made infants irritable. They attempted to beguile them with the simplest toy of all, the rattle, which may date from even earlier times.
Primitive rattles were made from gourds or clay pots containing a stone or dried pea. These poor efforts were discarded once they outlived their usefulness.
Mediterranean peoples had long believed that coral had magical properties and could ward off evil spirits. New-born babies' cradles were festooned with protective coral beads.
Soon, coral was being used to make gum or teething sticks to soothe swollen gums and ward off evil at the same time. Its hard, clean and cool surface was ideal for babies to gnaw on. It soon became common practice to present new-born babies with combination rattles and gum or teething sticks.
These christening presents became status symbols among the wealthier classes, and were made of gold or silver. Like other Georgian silver pieces, they were simply designed, with restrained decoration.
They were valuable enough to be passed down as heirlooms. Georgian or Regency examples, complete with bells, a whistle and a coral or ivory teething stick, can be very expensive indeed to collect. They were not cheap, even at the time.
Early Victorian rattles were more elaborate, and still incorporated bells, whistle and a teething stick or ring. The Victorians, less
impressed with the magical properties of coral, used mother-of-pearl, bone and
ivory as alternatives. Good examples will also be very expensive.
Later Victorian and early 20th century pieces are much more affordable. Silver and wood or tin rattles were being mass produced, while synthetic materials, such as ivorine and celluloid, began to be used for handles and teething rings.
Bells were now being replaced by hollow, moulded characters from
children's books or animal shapes such as bears and rabbits.
Look out for the Beatrix Potter character, Peter Rabbit, or Kate Greenaway-style children.
Georgian and Regency rattles and gum or teething sticks are way beyond the means of most people. Some Victorian items can be just as expensive, because they are elaborate and made of rich materials.
However, there are interesting and comparatively cheap examples from the age of mass production.
Beware, though, of the reproduction rattles which are now entering the market.
If in doubt, buy only from a reputable dealer.
You may come across the odd piece in antique markets, but shops that specialize in old toys and childhood objects are your most likely source of rattles and teething rings.
Auctions are another option. Do not be intimidated by a sale, just set yourself a strict budget and enjoy the experience.
Very early silver and gold rattles may not have a hallmark, but later examples will. Look for them on the mounts that hold the teething stick as this is the most likely spot to find them, though the makers' mark may be on the whistle.
Clear, crisp hallmarks are best. Rubbed or indistinct marks will lessen the value of a piece. Unmarked pieces are less desirable than marked ones.
Bells may be dented and battered, evidence of gnawing or the result of infant fury as the toy was hurled from the crib.
In some cases the teething sticks have been damaged or replaced.
Replacements need not be modern. It was common practice to repair good quality rattles.
However, you should be on the look-out for marriages between two damaged rattles, say a gum stick from one and the bells from another.
Moulded rattles in the form of animals and characters from children's books can make an interesting theme for a collection.
Make sure that the pieces are complete and are not missing their teething ring. Nursery rhyme characters are also available.