With Mother’s Day soon to be upon us, I wanted to seize this opportunity to review some of art history’s rarely discussed baby antiques. While I am not a mother, I have been known to make many a baby blanket for those lucky ladies who are expecting a bundle of joy or a new grandchild.
Handmade objects for a baby — such as tiny crocheted sweaters, knit blankets, crib quilts and the like — are among the most coveted and sentimental collectibles.
Few could afford an antique pacifier like those found in the mouths of wealthy babies of Colonial America. A privileged child of the late 1700s would have been outfitted with his or her first baby toy/teething ring from the local silversmith.
Typically made of sterling silver or gold, a Colonial-era pacifier would have been adorned with natural materials such as coral or mother of pearl. The smooth coral satisfied the baby’s urge to suck while the miniature bells and whistles satisfied the urge to scream. Coral was selected for its smooth composition and its ancient association with preventing illness and warding off ailments. Mother of pearl was another popular teething ring material; its bright white color symbolized purity and innocence. Some of the teething rings are found in major museum collections with insurance values of $2,000 to $2,500.
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Silver, gold and other precious metals spoke to the status of the baby’s family. Silversmiths were commissioned by socialites to make engraved silver baby cups. Mainly, such baby accessories were commissioned to match a well-to-do family’s silver tea service.
As the decades passed and families moved from engraved silver baby cups to no-spill plastic sippy cups, the accessories associated with feeding one’s bundle of joy became collectible.
Mashed peas and carrots had to get from a Gerber baby food jar to a baby’s mouth using some kind of utensil and so sparked the rage for the collecting of baby spoons and forks. Mickey Mouse, Roy Rogers and the Dionne quintuplets are only some of the characters that adorned baby spoons. Thus, baby silverware has been of interest to collectors, ranging in value from $15 to $250 depending on quality, condition and other market factors.
From baby rings to tiny earrings in newly pierced ears, infant jewelry has been satisfying a baby’s and collector’s need for bling since the Victorian times, circa the mid-1800s.
Tiny gold rings with delicate floral engraving, monograms and matching bands for mother and child were all the rage in the 19th century. Baby bracelets of 14-karat gold and necklaces of sterling silver were common from circa 1840 to 1920.
Market values range from the several hundreds to the thousands of dollars, depending on precious metals, makers, and number and quality of precious stones included in the pieces.
By the mid 20th century, American babies got their first piece of jewelry from the hospital. Beaded baby bracelets were largely produced for general hospitals, and these sentimental objects have sparked interest with contemporary jewelry designers and command high prices with collectors.
In the 1950s through the 1970s, baby bracelets consisted of plastic alphabet letter beads. The beads would spell out the mother’s surname. These were the baby’s first bauble. With pink beads for girls and blue beads for boys, these baby bracelets were worn during the first days of a newborn’s life, usually in the hospital. It helped hospital nursery room staff keep the newborns straight at feeding time.
Many mothers saved these tiny pieces of plastic jewelry as family keepsakes.
Today’s trendy costume jewelry has revived this simple yet stylish alphabet bracelet design from the hospital nursery to the haute couture boutiques.