Antique Metal Toy Trunks: Collecting Tips

Updated March 8, 2022
doll on vintage toy steamer trunk

Antique metal toy trunks are small but mighty childhood collectibles that can be used and displayed in many ways around your home. An important fixture of the adolescent play space, these metal toy boxes can serve and reserve their purpose for decades to come.

Doll's Trunks

Metal toy trunks were very popular in the early decades of the 1900s to hold doll clothes. Although steamer trunks and other types of clothing storage had been around for centuries, it wasn't until mass production and western consumerism hit a peak in the early 20th century that these trunks began to be substantially downsized. Dolls of all kinds (porcelain, bisque, and so on) were incredibly popular during this period, and they usually came with a custom steamer full of clothes.

The designs depended on the doll, the manufacturer and the era. A doll from the Victorian period might come with her own steamer trunk full of gowns, while a fashion doll from the early sixties might have come with a plaid trunk. Even to this day, clothing trunks remain an important feature of a plastic doll's ensemble.

Action Figure Trunks

As gender roles were reinforced in the 1960s, boys were given their own masculine versions of these metal clothing trunks. During this time, GI Joe action figures came with metal army storage containers. These trunks were olive green and were exact replicas of the real foot lockers. Joe's uniforms as well as accessories all fit in the trunks. They are now a favorite of collectors everywhere, and in good condition command premium prices.

Toy Storage Trunks

Similarly, this trend of using low-cost metals to make children's toys extended to children's storage units entirely. Toy trunks in the early 20th century were made out of (though not exclusively) metals like tin and aluminum, and were used to store kid's playthings. This trend continued throughout the mid-century, and soon extended into even smaller storage boxes like tin lunch boxes, marble cannisters, and so on.

Checking for Condition

two antique vintage dolls with tin metal box

Since these trunks were playthings, held playthings, and were used on the daily, in most cases they'll normally show signs of heavy wear and tear. Since this should be expected, some discoloring, rusting, and damage aren't going to have much of an impact on the trunk's value. However, there are some things that you want to check for and make sure of before you purchase any antique metal toy trunk. As always, these aspects can be difficult to determine with online sellers, so it's very important that you ask questions and make sure that you understand the seller's guarantees (make sure they are written) and return policies.

So, if you find a trunk in a local antique shop, there're few things you will want to check for: the state of the hinges, leather bands, and clasps.

Hinges

Make sure the hinges are present and original. Since the hinges see the most frequent amount of use, they often break and are either replaced or need to be replaced. If the hinges aren't original to the piece, the value is going to be slightly lower than if they were authentic. Hinges may also have some degree of rusting on them, but this doesn't necessarily mean that they're irreparable.

Leather Bands

Some metal trunks have leather bands or straps in order to more accurately emulate the steamer trunks of old. Since leather is highly susceptible to weather and heat, these old bands may be peeling or cracked. You can often bring them back to better condition by using a saddle cleaner or dressing, but there's no guarantee that every crumbling band can be repaired. If the bands are in an okay state, and after you have them clean, you can use the dressing every month or so to keep them moisturized, soft, and supple.

Clasps

vintage metal box with clasp

Clasps, like hinges, get a lot of wear. It's preferable that the clasps on the trunk are both present and original. If they have some degree of rust but aren't rusted through, you can polish them gently to retain some of the trunk's value.

Where to Find Replacement Items for Toy Trunks

Given the nature of materials that are prone to the ravages of time and weather, it's highly likely that there's either something missing or something in need of being replaced on your great-grandmother's doll trunk. If you're very patient, you may be able to pick up authentic antique parts on eBay or other venues that specialize in vintage hardware. Or, you can also find replacement hardware at specialty shops like Van Dykes, where you'll have to try to match the original hardware as closely as possible since the original manufacturers probably don't have the model information available anymore.

Where to Find Antique Metal Toy Trunks

Since they were supposed to accompany play and not be a part of the entertainment themselves, antique metal toy trunks are really difficult to find. Local antique stores may have them on occasion, and it's always a good idea to get to know a few antique dealers in your area so they can hold items for you if they get any in, but your best shot at finding one is to keep an eye out for new listings on the various online marketplaces and auction sites. Some of the places to check in regularly are:

  • eBay - Naturally, if any place on the internet's going to have these hard to find time capsules, it's going to be eBay. With a huge variety of independent sellers on their site, you've got a really great chance of finding what you're looking for.
  • Etsy - Now, if eBay doesn't have the type of metal trunk you're imagining for your Edwardian toy display, then Etsy's your next go-to place. Incredibly similar to eBay in it's function and design, Etsy also has a ton of sellers from around the world who might have that specific trunk you have in mind.

Even Adults Can Enjoy These Toys

While an antique metal toy trunk might be one of the more difficult collectibles to find, with a bit of tenacity and dedication, you can uncover that perfect steamer-style trunk you've needed to complete your antique doll collection.

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Antique Metal Toy Trunks: Collecting Tips