Cowan's Corner

Tiny Toys Inspire Big Collectors

By Wes Cowan

There is nothing silent about a pip squeak auction. Although some are more than 100 years old, pip squeaks have not lost that spring in their step and are still highly sought after by collectors today.

The name is slightly misleading as pip squeak suggests that something is diminutive or of little significance. While these highly sought after collectibles are rather small, they are by no means of little significance. The terminally charming and very folksy, hand-painted pip squeak toy carries big weight with collectors of folk art. The quality and charm of the animal subjects make pip squeaks an affordable and highly collectable commodity, which may not keep their squeaking noises, but will keep their charm and value.

Believed to be European in origin, the pip squeak toy was also made in the states, in particular in Pennsylvania during mid- 19th century. The “squeaks” are generally in the form of an animal, composed of a paper pulp or some sort of chalky composite, and attached to a paper or leather bellows. When pressed, the bellows push air through a reed whistle inside that causes a squeak to be associated with the critter.

The toys are usually some variety of bird and may have spiral wire legs that make the body of the bird wiggle when the bellows are pushed. Others have tiny wheels on the bellows, which can either create the squeak or serve no apparent purpose.

Beginning collectors will buy any squeaks and be delighted to have found them – as they don’t show up that often at auction. Birds, mostly chickens, ducks, roosters and parrots, with wire or stick legs, perched on a slanted bellows, are the most pedestrian forms. You can often find them for $75 to $400.

Things to look for are intact bellows, good paint and interesting forms. If a growing collection already has the requisite squeak birds, look for quadrupeds—four-legged animals—like a dog, cat or an elephant. Cats and cats with kittens are usually high on a scale of “cute” and perform some small mechanical feat, such as panting with a moveable tongue, as well as making a noise.

Collectors find squeaks that have moveable parts very appealing. Unusual forms may fetch as much as $700-$800, still a bargain for new collectors. These forms can include such things as a rooster in a cage, an elephant or a squeak that performs another function.

For more information: American Antique Toys – 1830-1900, by Bernard Barenholtz and Inez McClintoch, Harry Abrams, Inc., 1980, pp.118; or Toys A to Z: A Guide and Dictionary for Collectors, Antique Dealers and Enthusiasts by Mark Rich, Krause Publications, March 2001, pp 394. 

About the author: Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at Article research by Diane Wachs.



Two cat pip squeaks, ca.1840-1900, one with panting mechanism and a kitten; the other seated on a plaid bellows.


Three hen pip squeaks, all 19th century. Two are papier mâché examples with bellows, and the third squeaks when the cage is closed.

Pip squeak chicken with papier mâché body

Felt-covered pip squeak duck, mounted on tin wheels that when rolled activate a squeak bellow.



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