S.M. sends me a simple little silver item with three bells to the end, and a whistle to the top, about 4 inches long, slightly chewed upon, and he asks “what is it?”
He was surprised to receive an email from me: S.M., it is a baby rattle, from the mid-19th century.
These days, we do not give such small things to youngsters, but they were a sign of prestige and thought to ward off evil in the 18th century when they first came into vogue.
In children’s portraiture (popular from 1835 to 1845), we often see a baby (more than likely a baby boy; girls were not important enough to warrant a portrait, unless noble) holding a silver stick-like figure, very ornately decorated and showy, and sometimes we will see a small stick of coral at the end of these. Some have a circular end.
They look like miniature jester poles, with bells that fly off a bulbous top, and a lower level of jingle bells, followed by a row of little pendant balls filled with something that makes a rattling noise.
Somewhere on these baby toys, you will also see a whistle in the shaft, usually on the end of the rattle, and usually these are flattened by young gums and unplayable.
The circular thing was for a ribbon, used to tie the rattle around the baby’s neck. Doubly dangerous but often done!
People who have never seen such a thing often wonder about the spike of coral, irregular and organic looking, which pokes from the bottom. The coral end serves two purposes — one practical and one mythical.
Coral has a smooth and hard graduated surface and was naturally useful for teething purposes. But people in the late 18th through the early 20th centuries believed that coral, the color of blood, was a protection against illness and evil.
Coral jewelry, for this reason, was given as gifts, and grown people also wore coral, especially in the Victorian era, when a fad for naturalistic jewelry reigned. Regarding S.M.’s rattle, it looks to be silver, but the rattle is too heavy in construction to be anything but silver plate.
Silver plate was the middle-class answer to the baby rattle in pure sterling favored by the upper classes: for the well born children of the nobility, the baby sported a solid gold rattle. The wealthy of Regency England and the American Federal period parents purchased these rattles in sterling or gold, not usually engraved, for the male child, for two reasons — again, one practical and the other mythical.
Silver and gold are naturally germicidal, and, mythically speaking, bear the color of the sun and the moon, respectively. Good protection against the darkness of evil, so it was thought.
I have known collectors of children’s precious metal rattles spanning 1750-1890, collected from England, and also from America. In Europe, the style of rattles was more naturalistic; some European rattles were made of horn filled with shot, held upon a wooden stick. However, baby rattles were popular, through all classes of people, for generations.
The top of the heap in terms of value for collectors is an early 18th century sterling rattle in great condition, with a nice long spike of coral, and many bells and whistles. In fact, that is where that expression comes from: the finer the rattle, the more bells and whistles!
Another style that came later in the realm of expensive baby gifts was the Christening mug, and this was a Victorian invention, and usually engraved upon sterling, and the style continues to this day. You can order a Tiffany baby mug in sterling for $575.
Folks who collect these antique christening or birthday mugs find that condition is everything, as they usually were dropped many times over, and dented severely. As is the case with all children’s objects, condition is paramount.
Next time you are in a world-class museum, take a look at the portraiture of the child or the noble family with a baby, and you will no doubt see something in silver, rather frightening looking, with a red spike end.
That’s the baby rattle.
Collectors will pay up to $1,500 for a sterling rattle from the Georges period (George I through the IV) if they collect English rattles, and American collectors will pay much more, as they were rare in this young country, and usually commissioned by early American silversmiths.
The value of S.M.’s rattle is $150 and could be worth more to him if he had a relative that did the chewing.