by Diana Bulls
I think I have shared with you before, how fascinated I am by things “Made in Japan” during the 1920s and 1930s. I have, at one time or another, collected pitchers, tea sets, dogs, birds, small celluloid toys, holiday decorations, party favors or anything else that caught my fancy.
An island country with few natural resources, Japan’s industrialization really began expanding in the early 1900s. By the 1920s and 30s, Japanese exports flooded the U.S. markets, filling the five and dime stores across the country with inexpensive goods. There were practical household items like reamers, tea sets, serving dishes, and ash trays, but just as many things were purely for decoration. The best part about these imports was that they were all cheap, averaging in price from 10¢ to $1.00. I like to think of them as a bright spot in the midst of the Great Depression.
In addition to the ceramic goods, there were a plethora of tin, celluloid and paper based products: decorations for every holiday, candy containers, party favors and all sorts of toys. This brings me to some of my current and former collections. Tally cards for card games. Chenille Christmas decorations, cardboard village houses and bottlebrush trees. Halloween decorations and party supplies. Celluloid gumball charms.
The tally cards and Halloween decorations have all gone the way of eBay’s auction block. The tally sets that originally cost 10¢/set were sold for $5-$10, depending on the decoration theme. I sold a package of Halloween paper napkins (orange with a black cat border and scalloped edge), and a set of six cardboard wall decorations featuring a cat, witch, jack-o-lantern, bat, skeleton, and scarecrow for $23.00 and $48.75. The napkins originally cost 20¢ and the cardboard decorations were 25¢!
I have a confession here. I scrounged both of those items out of a dumpster in front of my across-the-street neighbor’s house. I also scored big with five or six bottlebrush Christmas trees and a bunch of postcards.
Sometime in the early 1920s, someone got the bright idea to put prizes into gumball or candy machines to attract more customers. These same prizes were often included in cigar boxes or cigarette packages. The very earliest prizes were made of metal, but it wasn’t long before the charms were being produced from celluloid, an early form of plastic. Almost all of these charms came from Japan. The use of celluloid was discontinued in the 1950s because it was considered dangerous.
Don’t get these gumball charms confused with the prizes that come in Cracker Jack boxes. Cracker Jack prizes are usually marked with “CJ” and tended to be mostly tin.
The celluloid charms are small–only about an inch long or a half inch wide. They come in the shape of animals such as horses, birds, dogs (especially Scotty dogs), cats, fish, zoo and farm animals. (Elephants with their trunks in the air signify good luck.) Moon Mullins, Popeye, Betty Boop, Disney characters, and soldiers and sailors were also popular, as were sports figures.
Initially, the charms were white, but it wasn’t long before colored charms made an appearance. These were hand-painted, some so perfectly that they are tiny works of art. Each charm has a tiny, metal loop attached so the charm can be added to a bracelet or necklace. They are generally stamped with “Japan”, although you can find charms that were made in Germany.
It’s hard to say which are my favorites. When I was younger, I loved all the horses. But now I think the Halloween charms are my favorite. There are skeletons–some with rhinestone eyes and top hats; fierce devils including one little imp with pink horns; arching black cats with ears laid back and a cat in a black shoe (which probably isn’t Halloween at all, but an advertisement for a shoe company).
If you are collecting, expect to pay from $2.00 to $20.00 per charm depending on theme and color. The metal loop should be intact and sometimes the original ribbon will still be attached. In addition to celluloid, you can sometimes find tiny blown glass figures, as well as charms made of metal.
I was lucky. My original collection was started by my mother who was born in 1923. She saved all her charms in a small cedar chest and I have continued to add to it. When we were growing up, my two brothers and I were allowed to play with the “knick-knacks” on rainy days. Just opening the chest today brings back a flood of memories.
Check out more of Diana’s home collectible articles here in KRL’s Hometown History section.