ASCAS Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver
article # 166
by Katherine Palthey
(click on photos to enlarge image)

Short history and how to identify them

Baby rattles "hochet" are among the oldest toys known in France, and probably even in the world. Evidence of baby toys in the form of rings, balls and sticks have been known as far back as the roman times. In the northern part of Normandy, archaeologists were digging up an antique cemetery in Evreux and discovered what they described as a Gallo-Roman object very similar to today’s baby rattle!
Gallo-Roman baby rattle French rattle: c. 1940
No Inv: 7226, Gallo-Roman baby rattle
Musée de l'Ancien Evêché, Evreux
French baby rattle, c.1940,
Lucite (transparent thermoplastic)
This important discovery in 1938 was one of many as more and more excavations are enthusiastically financed in France. This particular rattle pictured here is 20 cm long, with a silver coated bronze handle, two sided holes bordered in silver with a flattened sphere form, decorated with circular lines. Inside are two ceramic beads, and it is still in working order!
Tracing back to the early medieval times, French historians only had information on these baby rattles through writings, stories and descriptions. By the 13th century the word rattle ("hochet") was being used for the first time. Entering into the 14th century, the rattle was being seen in paintings and drawings. At this time in France, rattles resembled small shoes, horse sticks, tops and balls. Traditionally, there has always been belief about rattles with the "grelot" (little bell) inside. Priests and dancers in certain cultures used these rattles either hanging off their neck or tied to their ankles. The rattle noise in their sacred dances were said to protect them from dangers. These were worn like jewellery, so have been considered religious jewellery as these traditional beliefs continued. Rattles at this time were primarily made by "patenostriers" whose main business included the making of rosary beads and other religious artefacts. It was in the 15th century that the rattle, started being made with other materials such as bone, coral and shells, and took on a more "magical" meaning. The middle age rattles had boar or wolf teeth attached to them as it was thought to chase away evil spirits, and ultimately protect children from sickness and even death.
In the French royal archives dating back to the 1600's we can see the beginning of some important examples of more elegantly designed and engraved rattles being ordered as well as being repaired. The royal documentation records show that only the highest quality materials were employed such as silver, gold, coral, crystal and ivory. At this time, these outlandish birth gifts represented power and protective strengths among noble and bourgeois families. Most rattle designs starting at this time had long coral, crystal or ivory handles, and several outside bells decorating a central sphere. This was usually attached on a long chain for the nurse to hang around her neck while entertaining the child. Coral, throughout France, was believed to protect and heal, as seen throughout French history in holy paintings with both the Madonna and child carrying coral necklaces.

(on the right) Madonna and Child from the Isenheim Altarpiece, which was originally painted around 1520 for a church in Alsace, attributed to Matthias Grünewald
Madonna and Child from the Isenheim Altarpiece
In ancient times, coral was considered a magic stone. According to Ovid (Metamorphoses, IV, 740-752) red coral came from Medusa's blood when Perseus beheaded her. When blood entered in contact with air and sea, it turned the seaweed into coral. The Romans believed that it could protect men from harm. For Christians, instead, coral was Christ's blood and it was considered a powerful amulet against demons and bad luck. Red coral "corallium species" is found off the southern coast of France in the Mediterranean, and from 15th to 18th century the city of Trapani in Italy became the largest fishing and manufacturer site of red coral in Europe.

In 1725, French statutes changed and divided the artisans into different areas of specialties. Having only two "patenostriers" left, these artisans integrated with the other craftsmen using their specified material. For instance, after this time period in France there were specific ivory, bone and mother of pearl carving groups. Goldsmiths were now exclusively responsible for objects made in gold as well as silver (silver was rare, because it had been requisitioned by the Kings several times to be melted down for war investments especially in 1689 with 20 tons of furniture in silver alone!). After this time, all silver rattles were made by established goldsmiths, whom in some cases had already been placing their makers mark on their objects for years. Inventory documents prove that it was Thomas Germain, (1673-1748, and then his son François 1726-1791) who supplied the royal court with silver smalls including baby rattles at the birth of each prince and princess. It was at this period, between 1720 and 1740 that silver gilding ("vermeil") became very popular as seen throughout the royal palaces in France.

The next example shows how elaborate rattles were becoming with 8 hanging bells molded and engraved in silver with a coral handle and on the far end in some cases a whistle incorporated. Starting at this time we note two major shapes of rattles:
Red Coral and sterling Rattle, 17th Century Silver and ivory rattle, 19th century
Red Coral and sterling Rattle, long handle
with outside bells, 17th Century,
France Etude Sedde Dijon, 12/6/2006
Silver and ivory rattle, long handle
with inside balls, 19th century,
Jacob Norden Fine Antiques, Belgium
European styles strongly influenced the designs of the French silver rattle starting since the 17th century. At that time, silver production was beginning to expand from Germany's silver mine Rammelsberg (near Goslar in the Harz Mountains of eastern Germany) and from the main European ports, facilitating the diffusion of precious metal decorative items among wealthiest people. In addition, being central to the European trading ports, France benefited of the influences both English and Italian. The advanced baby rattles designs manufactured in these countries, coupled with the talent of Thomas Germains, set a lavish baby gift trend throughout the noble families in France. An increase in the demand of silver table items, silver furnishings and silver objects was witnessed at the same time especially in Paris and Versailles where Louis XIV was decorating his opulent Chateau! Symmetrical scrolling, leaves, faces, flowers and shell designs were popular at this time, and often the French royal family and court's members possessed gilded silver and even solid gold rattles, examples of which can still be seen in several French museums today. The influences of Italy's baroque decoration continued in France until the end of the 18th century.
Marie Zyphirine	of France on an 1751 oil painting by Jean Marc Nattier
On the left: This 1751 oil painting by Jean Marc Nattier shows Marie Zyphirine
of France (daughter of Louis XVI) with her sumptuous (silver-gilt or solid gold)
rattle with coral handle and outside bells.
Uffizi Museum, Florence
It was only after the French revolution that the rattle design became simpler, materials less expensive and more affordable for other families. More original in form, we see the neoclassical decorations typical of this time (especially after the discovery of Pompeii) such as Egyptian motifs, symmetrical sides, simple ribboning and musical themes. Also at this time in France, we register the appearance of theatrical figurines such as Harlequins, Marionettes and the famous French "Polichinelles".
Below, the first one on the left is a rattle given to the King of Rome by his parents Emperor Napoleon I and Empress Marie Louise in 1811. It has the form of a drum with four bells and is engraved: "Roi de Rome" (King of Rome). It was sold for 5500 Euros on June 24th 2012 in Pamier France.
The second and third rattle show typical shapes and classic styles in vogue in mid 19th century.
Until the mid of the 19th century France produced only small quantities of silver, not sufficient to satisfy the demand. Between 1856 and 1861 silver production attained record levels reaching over 7,000,000 ounces of silver – almost 5% of the world's total! After 1880 however, levels shrunk back down reaching on average a quarter million ounces a year.
Silverplate copies of older rattles and rattles with fake hallmarks started entering the market as prices of silver climbed higher. This element and their popularity as collectors' items makes identification even more complicated.
From late 19th century most of the French rattles were machine produced and the use of hand rings was introduced into the design using imitation ivory "French ivory" (including Bakelite and plastics).


The French hallmarking system is widely illustrated on ASCAS website. Some examples of articles about this subject matter are available following these links:
Silver Hallmarks of Paris (1723-1774) by Christophe Ginter
The Bigorne mark on French silver by Robert Massart
The triple master silversmith mark on French silver artifacts by Lise Moor
For other articles about this matter (many written by Christophe Ginter) see the Site Map .
Further hallmarks are available also in Giorgio Busetto website at Hallmarks of French silver (from 1797 to present days) and French Silver Hallmarks: Ancien Regime (18th century)
In this page I add only some information about hallmarks found on silver baby rattles.

Most of the 17th century rattles produced by "patenostriers" are unmarked and only few of the early French rattles produced by established goldsmiths comply with the rules of the hallmarking system. Only after 1725 goldsmiths became exclusive makers of silver and gold items and proper hallmarks can be found on silver rattles. In most cases, unless the piece was never really used to sooth baby's teething urges, these marks are faint or rubbed and often very difficult to decipher.
Moreover not more of two, of the series of four hallmarks (maker, charge, discharge, "maison commune"), is actually present on the rattles.
Rattles were hallmarked along the mouthpiece or, if wide enough, near the attachment, where the handle (either in coral, nacre or ivory) was inserted on the silver body. If the rattle had a hanging chain, each individual ring was required to be individually hallmarked if possible.
According to the size of the object, smaller makers mark could be used and charge/discharge marks replaced the letters with tiny symbols (faces, heads of animals, etc.). Note that this type of charge/discharge marks is very small and often can be unnoticed.

On the right: a small maker's mark on the mouthpiece of a baby rattle
a small maker's mark on the mouthpiece of a baby rattle
After the French Revolution (1789) the hallmarking system was modified using three marks (maker, guarantee and fineness) from 1797 and two mark (maker and fineness) after 1838.
Each silver item had a required location for the stamping of the mark. On baby rattles the location is on the edge of the silver handle or on the ring attaching the silver rattle to either the ivory ring or chain.
Below are three examples of location of boar head mark (800/1000 silver fineness for items made in Paris) on baby rattle handle.
The following photos below show two different French rattles produced at the turn of the century. The design is typical of the Art Nouveau period with flowers and flow moving design. The rings are real elephant ivory. They are hallmarked with boar head and maker's mark lozenge on the hanging ring
This silver 1900s dumbbell rattle is hallmarked on both sides of the hanging ring with boars head (center photo) and with the "bigorne"(authenticity countermark: photo on the right).
On the right are illustrated four examples of French Art Deco Rattles, quite popular from 1920’s to 1940’s.
They are properly hallmarked on the hanging ring, with "bigorne" countermarks. The design is much more geometric than the earlier years, with symmetry and bold lines defining the areas.
The hand rings were more often made with synthetic materials like Bakelite, plastics and Lucite.
Three have boars head hallmarks and the last one has a "crab" (800/1000 silver fineness in a Department outside Paris).
The little rattle on the far left was made for a doll (exists also a smaller size made for dollhouses).
four French Art Deco Rattles
After the introduction of electrolytic process (second half of the 19th century) silver plate rattles began to be manufactured in France. Silver plate items can be distinguished from that in solid silver by the shape of the maker's mark (a square instead of a lozenge).

- Les Poinçons de Garantie Internationaux pour l’Argent, Tardy, 12e edition 1942, Paris
- Dictionnaire des Poinçons, Orfèvrerie Française, Henri Beux, 1992, Suisse
- Les Grands Orfèvres de Louis XIII à Charles X, Hachette, 1965, Jaques Helft
- Le Hochet dans l’Histoire, Karen Vandroux, Musee du jouet, Moirans-en Montagne, 2003
- Les Arts Décoratifs, Le Hochet, La collection des jouets sonores,
- Marqueterie Boulle, Atelier Jacques Poisson, L’ivoire histoire et technique
- Comment Identifier l’Argenterie Ancienne et Dépister les Faux, J.C.Livet, France Antiquités No 80, Juin 1996
- L’Art et la puce, Le Magazine L’Esprit des Lois, Delphine Sadoun, La Gazette de Drouot, 28 avril 2006, No 17
- Baby Rattles and Teethers, Marcia Hersey
- Determination of impurities in antique silver, W. Devos, Ch. Moor and P. Lienemann, January 4th, 1999
- Dictionnaire des Poinçons Officiels Français, Emile Beuque, Paris, Imprimerie Courtois, 1925
- Manuel de L’Orfèvre, La garantie du Titre des Ouvrages, E. Ducharne et P. Vialette, 1925
- Wikipedia: Thomas Germain, Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI, Silver
Katherine Palthey
- 2013 -