BABY rattles were mentioned in inventories as far back as Elizabethan times, and developed into a fine art over the years, especially in Birmingham, once known as the toy capital of the world.
Possibly one of the earliest records of the baby rattle was made by one William Horman, who in 1519 wrote: “I wyll bye a rattell to styll my baby from cryenge.” (Stephen Helliwell, Collecting Small Silverware).
According to Helliwell, most early rattles had red coral handles and served a double purpose. They soothed and calmed the baby when restless. The smooth, red coral handle was cool and suitable to chew on when teething, and was believed to “guard the baby against the malevolent threat of witchcraft”. Jeremy Astfalck, of The Old Corkscrew in Franschhoek, says coral was seen in early times as protecting of the wearer against the evil eye and witches.
Wealthy classes were prepared to go to great expense to pacify wailing babies, and early rattles were made of silver and gold in Georgian times. Gold rattles, which Astfalck describes as the ultimate prize in this collecting field, are extremely rare. He has seen only one in the UK, on the BBC Antiques Roadshow five years ago. It was in its original box, and the piece should retail at more that £20000 today. Helliwell says that by 1860 shallow water red coral was disappearing in the Mediterranean. Alternative substances such as mother-of-pearl and ivory were used, as by then teething sticks were replaced by teething rings.
Materials used helps with dating; in pre-1820 only coral was used in rattle manufacture and then mother-of-pearl and ivory. Early rattles were available only in about five or six shapes, but post 1860 novelty designs appeared. “Today collectors prefer to collect as many varieties of rattles as possible rather than specialise in an era or design,” Astfalck says.
As the common purpose of the rattle was to make a noise to distract the baby, rattles incorporated silver bells and in some cases whistles as well. At first rattles contained dried peas and later silver pellets. “The biggest rattle I’ve seen had six levels of bells, which could be described as the bell tower of a miniature cathedral,” Astfalck says. He says collectors should check that hallmarks are clear, although bells being round, are seldom hallmarked. The whistle should be working. There should be no splits in the piece, although it is acceptable for the teething stick to be chewed down to a stump. Replacement bells do not affect price as babies often pulled bells off, and even swallowed them.
Astfalck prices rattles in The Old Corkscrew at between R1500 and R10000. Judith Miller in Collector’s Price Guide tags a 1915 silver rattle with Birmingham hallmarks at £200 to £250 and a 1920 silver rattle by Crisford & Norris Birmingham, at £70 to £90.