Teething toy with whistle

By Dr Stephanie Tarbin
Teething toy with whistle held in the collection of the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum

Rattles and teething toys are among the first toys children receive, and are known to have existed for thousands of years. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) observed that rattles were good for absorbing children’s energy, commenting that ‘a rattle is a suitable occupation for infant children’. [1] Rattles also divert and entertain distressed children: a schoolboy exercise in a 1519 Latin textbook contains the phrase ‘I will buy a rattle to still my baby crying’. [2] Rattles may be as simple as a seedpod or a clay vessel holding beads, such as the 4000 year-old ceramic rattle recently unearthed at Kültepe (Anatolia). Others may be elaborate items capable of soothing and amusing a child through a range of developmental stages, from infancy to early childhood.

The 3D model shown here, while incomplete, is a combined teething toy with rattle, bells and whistle, and is a multi-purpose, complex object. The toy was discovered during waterfront archaeological investigations in London and is part of the Neish Pewter Collection now housed at Stirling Museum and Art Gallery.

 A canine tooth from a wolf is fitted to the head, providing the teething infant with a subtly corrugated surface to chew and rub on their gums. Any sharp edges on the tooth have been round and smoothed. The main body of the toy is made from pewter, with cross-hatching on the handle, providing further tactile interest for little hands (and mouths). Copper-alloy bells are attached to the hollow, ball-shaped head, which might contain beads. Young infants, capable of grasping and waving their hands might easily produce sounds with this rattle-and-bell combination.

At the end of the pewter handle there is a whistle, more suitable for older babies (from around 10 months) and toddlers who have the lip, jaw and cheek muscle development enabling them to regulate air-flow to produce a variety of sounds. [3]

A collection of pewter/lead alloy, auctioned by Bonhams in February 2016. (Lot 91)

By the time this bauble was created, around 1540, pewter was an increasingly affordable material for manufacturing domestic items, including toys. [4] The discovery in London of a wide range of miniature cast metal toys has led archaeologists to conclude that ‘toys were a widely available, mass-produced commodity, keenly marketed from at least 1300’.[5]

The pewter handle of this toy, and others like it, may have been available as over-the-counter purchase in London and other bustling towns of north-western Europe. In the later-sixteenth century, infants in wealthy merchant families were also depicted with these toys, such as the younger child of Antonius Anselmus, included in the family portrait of 1577 by Martin de Vos.

Detail from the family portrait of Antonius Anselmus, his wife and their children, by Martin de Vos (1577). Full portrait can be seen as wikiart.org.

As well as being widely attested in pictorial evidence [6], there are many surviving examples of baubles of this type in galleries and collections, often featuring coral in place of the wolf tooth, produced right up into the nineteenth century. [7]

This child’s toy, with its wolf’s tooth, bells and whistle, evokes a range of emotional responses from modern viewers. My immediate response is horror at the thought of bells becoming detached (‘Choking hazard!’), followed by a sense anxiety at the possibility of an uncoordinated infant poking the tooth point into an eye. [8] I will also admit to a mild feeling of revulsion at the thought of an alloy containing lead, or the canine tooth of a wolf, in the mouth of an infant.

When featured on the online forum ArtefactPorn, many comments relate to this object’s dangerous appearance, with one contributor noting ‘looks like a baby dagger. i am glad i was born in the last 50 years’ and another asking, ‘Why is everything from the sixteenth century so terrifying?’. [9]

The design and materials of this toy, and others like it, provide clues to the emotions of adults in the past, particularly feelings of love and concern for infants and children. Creating an item capable of producing a range of sounds and offering a variety of tactile sensations suggests a desire to divert and please children. The noises from bells, rattles and whistles may also have helped busy carers to keep tabs on toddlers when they were out of sight: further indications of concern for the safety and wellbeing of young children.

Wolves’ teeth were endowed with many natural and magical properties. Ancient traditions identified wolves’ teeth as providing relief for sore gums and protection against convulsions. The author of a hunting treatise, Jean de Clamorgan, drew on the work of Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder (23 CE-79 CE) when he wrote in his hunting treatise of 1571:

When bound on a child’s body, wolf teeth help to soothe the child and to ease their teething pains. For that purpose many Parisians have cultivated the use of wolf teeth by hanging small toys around their children’s necks that are referred to as ‘rattles’ (hotchets). These toys are made of silver and they contain a large wolf’s tooth. While playing, children will chew on the rattle with their gums, making teething easier and less painful. [10]

Wolves’ teeth may also have represented magical protection or a form of sympathetic magic to imbue children with strength and cunning. In the thirteenth century, the Franciscan Bartholomaeus Anglicus wrote:

The wolf is an evil beast, when he eateth, and resteth much when he hath no hunger: he is full hardy, and loveth well to play with a child, if he may take him; and slayeth him afterward, and eateth him at the last’. [11]

Wolves’ teeth continued to be used in amulets and charms until the later nineteenth century in France. [12] The noises made by whistles, bells and rattles were also believed to give protection from evil spirits. More generally, prayers, charms and household items such as bread and knives could be used to defend children from supernatural harm. [13]

The protective functions of teething toys and rattles point to another adult emotion: fear. Study of English parish records between 1540 and 1599 indicates that for every 1000 babies born, some 270 (27%) died before their first birthday. Further deaths during childhood meant that nearly half of the original cohort (42.5%) died by the time they were ten years old. [14]

While this toy arouses fears in modern observers as a potential source of harm to small children, the same toy probably represented a response to fears about the innumerable and inexplicable dangers of childhood for premodern adults. Our perceptions of the sources of danger have changed drastically, we share a concern to protect vulnerable children from harm and a desire to ensure their wellbeing.

However, the final emotional perspective on the toy should belong to children. Watching small children at play today, we can imagine the joy of premodern children at producing a range of sounds from this multipurpose toy and their absorbed interest at its variety of sensory stimuli. Perhaps, too, we may consider the satisfaction of premodern children who mastered new motor skills, observed and understood the processes of cause and effect, and delighted in their emerging ability to have an impact on the world around them. When you view the object in full 3D rotation, how does it make you feel?

About the author

Stephanie Tarbin is a research assistant with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe, 1100-1800). Her main research interest is the gender and social history of late-medieval and early modern England, particularly relating to children’s experiences. She has published essays on moral regulation, masculinity, women’s friendships and children’s experiences. With Susan Broomhall, she is co-editor of Women, Identities and Communities in Early Modern Europe (Ashgate, 2008).


[1] Aristotle, Politics, Book 8, Chapter 6, Section 1340b. Online at The Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.058%3Abook%3D8%3Asection%3D1340b [last accessed 25 November 2016].

[2] Cited in Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children, (London and New Haven, 2001).

[3] Diane Bahr, Nobody Ever Told Me (Or My Mother) That!: Everything from Bottles and Breathing to Healthy Speech Development (Arlington, Canada, 2010), 100-105, 150.

[4] Jane Whittle and Elizabeth Griffiths, Consumption and Gender in the Early Seventeenth-Century Household: The World of Alice Le Strange (Oxford, 2012), 144.

[5] Geoff Egan, ‘Miniature Toys of Medieval Childhood’, British Archaeology 35 (1998), available at: http://www.archaeologyuk.org/ba/ba35/ba35feat.html#egan [last accessed 25 November 2016]

[6] For example see:  ‘Wondering what to get your renaissance baby?’, Material Culture 19 (2013), at: http://larsdatter.tumblr.com/post/50827083324/wondering-what-to-get-your-renaissance-era-baby [last accessed 25 November 2016]; Barbara Wells Sarudy, ‘Children with rattles & teething toys from 1500s Europe to 1700s America’, It’s About Time, Friday 21 February 2014 at https://bjws.blogspot.com.au/2014/02/children-with-rattles-from-1500s-europe.html [last accessed 25 November 2016].

[7] See for example items in the Victoria and Albert collection (M.18-1996, M.18-1973, 104-1872); the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met 1978.287); and The Keijser Collection website, at: http://www.collectiekeijser.nl/en/ [last accessed 25 November 2016].

[8] Very young babies may have been given similar toys: see the portrait of Cornelia Burch, aged two months, in swaddling clothes holding a rattle, at:
http://www.mylearning.org/the-painted-lady–tudor-portraits-at-the-ferens/images/1-2348/ [last accessed 25 November 2016].

[9] ArtefactPorn, 29 September 2015, at: https://redd.it/3mrre0 [last accessed 25 November 2016].

[10] Quoted in relation to ‘Wolf’s Tooth!’, 12 July 2013,  Keijser Collection, at: http://www.collectiekeijser.nl/en/index_leesmeer.php?id=6  [last accessed 25 November 2016]. Pliny wrote that ‘[a] wolf’s tooth attached to the body, prevents infants from being startled and acts as a preservative against the maladies upon dentition’ [i.e. teething]. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Chapter 78. Source: Delphi Complete Works of Pliny the Elder, Delphi Classics, 240.

[11] The Medieval Bestiary, 15 January 2011 at: http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast180.htm [[last accessed 25 November 2016].

[12] ‘Wolf Tooth, France’, Small Blessings: Amulets at the Pitt Rivers Museum, at: http://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/amulets/index.php/tooth-amulet1/ [last accessed 25 November 2016].

[13] ‘Bosun’s call’ [or pilgrim souvenir?], 16th century, ID no. 96.24/2, The Museum of London, at: http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/284322.html [last accessed 25 November 2016]; Orme, Medieval Children, 64-6.

[14] Orme, Medieval Children, 113.