At Play

Antique toys add history and whimsy to any room
eugenia uhl photograph

During a recent girls’ trip to Santa Barbara, I visited a number of beautiful private homes, each with its own distinct style. While touring the home of interior designer Lucinda Lester, I was captivated. There in her elegant French country manor home, amid a gorgeous collection of antique and modern pieces, were antique toys.

Lester dotted her spaces with antique animals she has collected during her travels to France throughout the last 40 years. Atop the marble mantelpiece in her spacious living room was a white-washed antique horse. On either side of the horse rested bouquets of dried flowers and lavender, creating a charming vignette. In front of the fireplace in her family room, an antique wooden dog slept on the hearth. In a hallway, a hand-carved white-washed clay pig was placed on top of a French buffet. A large antique rocking horse — one that obviously gave many children hours of fun — sat on top of a table. Under the table was a wire basket holding two white ducks. Each toy was so subtlety placed that others in my group hardly noticed them until I pointed them out. I found them irresistible.

Antique and vintage toys are the perfect accessories to a room. Each toy adds a historic dimension and a touch of whimsy to even the most formal setting. They also add personality and act as conversation starters.

“Antique toys work in any setting, formal or contemporary,” says Lester. “They add a human, joyful, childlike feeling to any room.  They harken back to a time when we played.”        

I once visited a home in Old Metairie where the owner had an antique perambulator, or baby carriage, placed in her large foyer. It had been in her family for generations. In it, she placed a few dolls that belonged to her mother. Who could pass such a setting without asking the history behind it? I surely couldn’t. In another home, I saw a vintage toy car, big enough for a three-year-old to peddle down the street. It had chipped paint and some rust peeking through the finish. It looked like a well-worn sculpture in the corner of the library.

If you are lucky enough to have a collection of antique sailboats or toy soldiers, display them in a group. Don’t confine them to glass cases; most are meant to be played with and held.

If you have one significant piece, showcase it atop a mantel or chest, as Lester does. In my guest bedroom, I have an antique bisque doll (ca. early 1900’s), dressed in a now fragile lace dress and bonnet that once belonged to my late mother-in-law. I placed it on top of a chest of drawers where she watches over the room. Each time I see it, I think of my mother-in-law as a young girl playing with this precious babe, and I smile.

Don’t worry if that toy has a few dings or some chipped paint. Such imperfections give the piece history.

Collecting antique and vintage toys is popular right now and prices have skyrocketed ­— especially early American pieces, according to Lester.  You can find some beautiful antique toys on First Dibs, but they are quite pricey. Locally, there are some antique stores that feature collectible antique toys. The Little Toy Shop on St. Ann Street in the French Quarter has a unique collection of Madame Alexander dolls, die-cast toy soldiers, toy musical instruments and more. The Antique Art Collectibles store on Royal Street has a fine assortment of cast-iron toys, antique toy trains and other collectibles. Both of these stores are high-end collectors’ dream stores. At the Magazine Street Antique Mall you can often find less pricey treasures like dolls though, including Raggedy Ann dolls, vintage ceramic figures and piggy banks, books and games.
For many, like Lester, finding and caring for these items is a lifetime passion.

“We as humans want our homes to be comfortable and safe, a place where we can relax,” she says. “There’s something about looking at a well-loved toy that makes us feel peaceful, restful. A precious toy is good for our psyche and our soul. Doesn’t that make the hunt worthwhile?”


Use small, heavy toys as bookends or to break up the monotony of rows of books on bookshelves.

Use a toy as the base of a lamp.

Large toys (like a sled) can become an end table or coffee table by placing glass or plexiglass on top.

Learn the history of the toy so you can share the story with friends.


Categories: Antiques, LL_Home, Shopping, Theatre + Art