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Collecting Antique Lithographed Toys – The ‘Bliss’ of the Hunt

by Liz Holderman (12/12/11).

This 18-inch Bliss Santa and Sleigh in very good condition sold for $2,530 (including buyer’s premium) at Cowan’s Auctions in 2007. It has a cross-over appeal to holiday collectors as well as toy collectors.

The development of a printing method for making chromolithographs radically changed book publication during the middle of the 1800s because it removed the need to color the illustrations by hand. Children’s picture books were easier and cheaper to produce (and now vibrantly colored), so they became extremely popular after the Civil War. The R. Bliss Manufacturing Company recognized an opportunity to expand into the children’s market with these illustrations and by 1871 it had begun to paste lithographs onto wooden toys.

Rufus Bliss had founded his wood turning company in Pawtucket, R.I., in 1832, making clamps, screws and other wood devices used in piano and cabinet making. He eventually formed a partnership with his nephew and two others, creating a firm called R. Bliss Manufacturing Company. Rufus retired from the day-to-day operation in 1863 and died in 1879, but the company retained the name and eventually evolved into an industry leader in the manufacture of wooden toys. Its first doll house appeared in 1889 and its toy output peaked between 1890 and 1910. The company continued production until 1914, when the toy division was sold to Manson & Parker.

This 19-inch, two-story Bliss doll house sold for $1,250 on eBay in 2010. It opens from the side and sports mica window panes, crocheted curtains, floral wallpaper and turned porch columns.

This 36-inch Bliss pull-toy of the battleship USS New York dates to 1896 and includes crew members, movable cannons, flags and rigging. It sold for $2,276 in May 2011 on eBay.

Why are these 120-year old Bliss toys so expensive today? They are known for their unsurpassed quality and distinctive artwork, with elaborate details and vivid chromolithographs. There were many varieties and designs for each type of toy (including dozens of different ships and doll houses) and some of these are extremely rare.

Why are these toys so rare? Think about how you played with your toys. Now think about how these Bliss toys were made of wood covered in paper, so they naturally became scratched, soiled and torn with use. Boats were dunked in bathtubs. Chimneys were knocked off doll houses. Pieces from board games were lost. If they survived their first owner’s childhood, the toys might have been boxed away to save for the next generation. Over the years, storage in damp basements or extremely hot attics caused the wood to separate and the paper to darken and shrivel.

Bliss toys are hard to find today in any condition, but the ones in very good shape and with all pieces intact can bring top dollar. A Santa and sleigh that sells for $2,500 in great condition can sell for $200 in poor condition. Paper loss, paper discoloration and water stains are some of the more critical factors in rating condition.

These 16 Bliss alphabet blocks are 3 inches high and shaped like books with lithographed covers of children and animals. It is rare to find a complete set. This one sold for $483 on eBay in February 2011.

Most—but not all—Bliss toys were marked with the Bliss name, although it was usually incorporated into parts of the design and may be hard to find. Markings varied, including “R Bliss,” “R Bliss Mfg Co” or simply the letter “B.” Sometimes an identifying number was marked along paper seams (particularly in the various doll houses) or around the corners of boxes. Collectors also use old sales catalogs to identify the toys, but only a few catalogs are known to exist and none have been found for the years between 1901 and 1910. Victorian lithographed toys that look very similar to Bliss are prevalent, so verification is always recommended.

The list of known toys includes ships, alphabet and building blocks, doll houses, doll furniture, doll trunks, stables, Noah’s arks, wagons, carriages, chariots, fire trucks, milk trucks, bean bag and ring toss games, animals, forts, churches, board games, table croquet and even a moving picture theater with a reel of pictures. A few toys added a bit of metal, such as pianos, xylophones, pinball games and tool chests. Target games included a small air rifle with rubber ammunition. Train sets sometimes reached four feet in length and were advertised with locomotives, tenders, passenger cars, gravel cars, open gondolas, circus cages, stock cars and flatbeds piled with lumber.

Bliss collectors are always looking. They are thrilled to find a toy example that has not been previously documented, an old advertisement that aids in authentication, a new design or shape, an unusual piece of doll furniture or a different way to identify the Bliss mark. For many fans of these fabulous lithographed toys, the thrill is in the hunt. Sometimes a piece appears at auction that has never been seen outside of a vintage Bliss catalog, and that is a special event indeed.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.

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3 Responses to “Collecting Antique Lithographed Toys – The ‘Bliss’ of the Hunt”

  1. Felicia says:

    In my genealogy research, I’ve just recently discovered that my 3G grandfather, Vincent W Wilson, was a designer for R Bliss from about 1885 until his death in 1913. He had a patent on a “Game apparatus” in 1889. One would suspect he designed many of these items…I only wish I could prove it! I just told my husband I’m going to start collecting Bliss toys, which could get expensive!

    • John Armstrong says:

      Hi Felicia,

      I have been researching your great-great-great grandfather for several years and have been hoping to contact a descendant.

      Vincent Ward Wilson was indeed one of the important figures in toy design in the late 1800s.

      If there is anything you need to know, perhaps I can help.

      Was your great-great grandmother Emma or Cora?

      Hope to hear from you,

      John Armstrong
      Toymaker
      Omaha, Nebraska

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