Bonanza was the number-one show on television and a first-class postage stamp cost only five cents in 1967 when Ray Rothlisberger from Burlington, Iowa, started collecting watch fobs. Today, Ben Cartwright is but a memory, and a first-class postage stamp costs more than seven times what it did back then, but Ray is still collecting fobs.
He's up to about 1,600 vintage fobs now. Most date from 1910 to 1930, and they sport general advertising, construction or farm images. He's also active in the International Watch Fob Association - organized in 1968 to help collectors connect with each other - and he's the secretary, treasurer and a charter member of the Midwest Watch Fob Collectors, Inc., founded in 1970. Members of both groups collect the same types of fobs as Ray, along with fobs that feature sailing, military, political and social motifs.
Watch fobs are ornaments about half the size of a policeman's badge or smaller. They are designed to be attached to a short ribbon, chain or leather piece that, in turn, is attached to a pocket watch. This style of timepiece was mass-produced from the early 1850s until after World War II in the United States, and during its heyday around the turn of the 20th century, it was favored by both men and women. The owner tucked his or her watch into a special 'watch pocket' that was routinely sewn into the clothing of the era. Trousers, skirts, vests, blouses and even overalls came with such pockets sewn discretely inside. Blue jeans and overalls today still come with those hidden pockets.
The fob, attached to the watch, was grasped when pulling the watch out of the snug, little pocket to check the time. During World War I, wrist-watches were developed for military pilots and apparel fashions changed, too. Both contributed to the decline of pocket watches, and consequently, fobs. Although both continue to be produced and used on a limited basis, especially among farmers and construction workers, most fobs still around are vintage pieces.
Many antique fobs are made of metal - from sterling silver and gold to brass and lesser-expensive materials. Some have Celluloid, bone or pearl insets, or those materials are used in other creative ways. A series of John Deere fobs that Ray owns features small, metal deer affixed to larger pieces of Mississippi River mother of pearl. Almost all of the fobs collected today are made of lesser-expensive metals and hang on a leather strap. Many offered for sale on Internet sites are sterling silver reproductions, a material rarely used on original fobs.
Early-day fob manufacturers, whose names sometimes appear on the backs of their products, include Metal Arts Co., Bastian Bros., Greenduck Co., S.D. Childs Co., Leavens, Robbins Co., Whitehead & Hoag and Ohio Badge
'All of these would have been handed out at fairs or company picnics as tokens of appreciation, or as awards for running the company's equipment well,' Ray says of his fob collection. The nifty keepsakes, regularly worn by the recipients, advertised the presenting firms to all who came in contact with wearers.
A gift first sparked Ray's interest in collecting fobs back in '67 with two vintage pieces from his parents. The fobs from his folks were a DeLaval cream separator and a 'Northern Light.' The Northern Light acetylene apparatus was made by the Clefton Co., of Owatonna, Minn., a firm that sold carbide lights for the home. 'I started looking for them after that,' he recalls. 'And for pocket watches with fobs, too.'
Ray was immediately captivated by the sharp, intricate details and the artwork involved in the porcelain-faced fobs. 'There seems to be no limit to the variety of fobs given out through the years,' he says. 'Plus, they are easy to store and carry. When you're done at a show, you just put them back in the deposit box until next time. No big truck is needed to move them.'
Fobs with general advertising themes often feature household items, and usually employ colorful motifs. Among those in Ray's collection are a Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flakes fob, made in the shape of a corn flakes box, and a circular, highly colored Eagle-brand Lye fob. The Eagle lye fob is Celluloid and depicts a bald eagle atop the earth and a can of the Eagle-brand lye below. The words that encircle the lower half command simply, 'Use Eagle Lye.'
Other general-advertising products touted by fobs in Ray's collection include embalming fluid, tobacco, overalls, Paul Parrot-brand shoes, Deadshot-brand gunpowder and the Omaha Stockyards. A pre-World War II fob features a swastika on one side and the slogan 'Drink Coca-Cola' on the other. Ray explains that before its meaning was corrupted by the Nazis, the swastika was a universal sign of good luck.
Having worked construction through the years, Ray is also fond of construction-related fobs. Among those varieties in his collection are several that feature Caterpillar and the Bucyrus-Erie Co. motifs. Farm themes predominate, though, reflecting Ray's own rural background, and include some of the oldest and rarest fobs he owns. Farm fobs depict everything from horse-drawn vehicles to tractors, threshers, implements like plows and cultivators and all sorts of associated items. Often, a particular machine is shown on the fob, or the fob is shaped like a machine itself. Other times, company mascots or logos are depicted in various artful ways.
The oldest farm fobs in Ray's collection advertise wagons and buggies. One promotional piece issued by the Sechler Wagon Co. reveals an international tie. The firm eventually became Agar Cross and Co., Ltd., which established sales operations in South America and represented Deere & Co. in Buenos Aires.
Another fob advertising Gestring wagons sports a Celluloid center disk with the word 'Gestring' and a colorful green, red and yellow box wagon as its motif. That fob belongs to Ray's friend, and was so well cared for over the years that its wagon colors are still vivid. Ray says Gestring was a St. Louis farm wagon company. 'Most fobs made with Celluloid didn't hold up nearly as well as this,' Ray says.
Another unique piece in his collection depicts a doctor's buggy labeled 'Hodge Bros., Abilene, Kan.' Its centerpiece is the buggy, and is the size and color of a copper penny. The contrasting outer edge - a brown metal -is shaped like a laurel wreath, an ancient symbol of victory.
A number of fobs in Ray's collection simply carry well-known company logos. IHC for International Harvester Corp., AC for Allis-Chalmers, MM for Minneapolis-Moline and TC for Twin City are just a few examples. Others are shaped like the animals that served as mascots of these and other firms. Represented repeatedly are the Aultman & Taylor Machinery Co.'s starved rooster, the Garr-Scott tiger, the Case eagle, the Avery bulldog and the unmistakable John Deere deer.
The bulldog also shows up in several forms, including a toothy front view - with the firm's slogan 'Avery teeth talk' featured - and another with just a single tooth, engraved in steel with the same words. The Garr-Scott tiger's fierce countenance peers out from one fob, while a side view of the same creature, lounging across two globes (one shows the western hemisphere and the other depicts the eastern), is featured on another. The Case eagle, atop its globe, appears in several incarnations on other fobs, including brass and enamel, and encircled by various fancy flourishes.
'These animal fobs are hard to date,' Ray says. 'And no information exists on how many were made, so it's hard to know how rare they are.'
Some fobs take the shape of particular items, such as an International Harvester Corp. cream separator depicted in porcelain and brass, and a bountiful-looking brass shock of wheat, which advertises the Independent Harvester Co., in Piano, Ill.
Among Ray's older tractor fobs are ones that feature 'the new Huber,' the Big Bull, the Heider, Rumely Do-All and Advance-Rumely Oil-Pull, which is cheerfully enameled in blue and green.
A fob issued by Hart Parr, probably in the late 1910s or earl; 1920s, according to the style of tractor shown, depicts the radiator head-on with the firm's name, a spread bird wing attached to each side and an actual compass below.
Threshing machine, combine and stationary engine motifs are favorites with Ray. Several of his fine fobs were issued by the Birdsell Manufacturing Co. out of South Bend, Ind., and highlight the firm's popular clover and alfalfa huller. A William Galloway Co. fob goes right to the wearer's stomach with a full-color striped watermelon, split in half, and the slogan, 'Galloway of Waterloo (Iowa) divides the melon with you.' The story, Ray explains, is that William Galloway always kept a large tank of watermelons at his farm show displays. He would split the melons and give them away to visitors.
Among Ray's stationary engine fobs are an Alamo, 'the famous Associate Mule Team,' a Gilson, made in Port Washington, Wis. Also a Lauson 'Frostking' Gas Engine, made by the John Lauson Gasoline Engine Co., New Holstein, Wis., which features what looks like the 'Frost King' himself.
Today, the market for vintage fobs and pocket watches is flourishing, Ray says. Early John Deere fobs are the 'hottest,' he adds. A few fobs that originally sold for 25 cents or are worth more than a thousand dollars as collectibles to those people enamored with the artifacts.
'On the extreme high end of prices,' he says, 'the fobs are very few in number, but there are many desirable, old fobs for sale in the $25 to $250 range. Fobs will vary in value from one area to another, and seeing one firsthand before purchase is highly recommended.'
A number of reproduction fobs are also on the market, Ray says, and some look so much like the real McCoy that they can stump even a veteran collector. He urges buyers to be sure the sellers are reputable folks. Ray says he does more buying than selling these days, and is always on the lookout for that rare piece which has escaped his ever-watchful eye. On his personal 'wish list' are wire-rope advertising fobs, the porcelain Deadshot Gun Powder fob and the LeTourneau Certified Operator fob that depicts the Model D Tournapull.
For more information about Ray's personal collection, contact him at 11895 Highway 99, Burlington, IA 52601; firstname.lastname@example.org
A passion for State Farm fobs
Fred Black of Carbondale, III., is a natural born collector. First he collected coins, then furniture. 'And when we filled up our house, we had to stop,' Fred says with a chuckle. When he retired seven years ago, after more than 23 years as a State Farm Insurance agent, he started collecting again - State Farm memorabilia, naturally.
That's when he discovered the existence of State Farm watch fobs. 'I didn't know State Farm had watch fobs,' he says. 'I didn't get my first fob until 10 years ago!'
The firm was launched as State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co., by George J. Mecherl in 1922 in Bloomington, III. By 1925, the company included customers in Missouri, Indiana and South Dakota. Shortly after its founding, the company produced its first fob. On the front was a 1925 Buick, and the back read 'Indiana Farm Bureau Federation State Agent for Indiana, Indianapolis, Indiana.'
Soon, all the other State Farm locations were thinking about fobs. From then on the company's fobs increased in number and regularly changed in design to reflect the organization's growth. Among landmark events that prompted the issuance of new fobs was the 1929 addition of a life insurance company to the operation, symbolized on State Farm fobs with a cornucopia motif. The addition of fire insurance in 1935 prompted a new design with three ovals - one each for the auto, life and fire divisions. In 1939, the word 'Marine' was added as well.
State Farm distributed its fobs in various ways, including rewards to winners in sales competitions staged between agents.
Today, Fred's collection includes eight to 10 different styles of State Farm fobs, and doubles of each. One of his most-prized pieces is a 1931 fob given out in a major agents' competition. It sports the number '31' etched in the driver's door of the Buick on the fob's front. Fred spent three years convincing the previous owner to sell the piece.
Fred says he thinks State Farm stopped producing fobs shortly after World War II began, although he is unsure if more designs exist than those he has already discovered. 'I am constantly learning about my collection, and I'm always interested in adding both fobs and historical information,' he says.
Fred is also a member of the International Watch Fob Association, Inc., and currently handles publicity for the group.
- For more information about Fred's collection or the association, contact him at 2030 S. Illinois Ave., #2, Carbondale, IL 62901.
The International Watch Fob Association, Inc., is an organization for collectors of vintage strap-type watch fobs. The group holds one show and sale each spring in the Cleveland area, and produces two newsletters.
The IWFAI was organized in 1968, according to Ray Rothlisberger of Burlington, Iowa, a past president, and Fred Black of Carbondale, III., the group's current publicity chairman. Today, the IWFAI has more than 650 members. New members receive two fobs for joining. One is a member fob and the other commemorates the group's annual show. The show fobs are issued annually to all active members.
This year's annual show and sale are set for April 11 and 12 at the Radisson Hotel in Middleburg Heights, Ohio.
For more information about the organization, contact Fred Black, 2030 S. Illinois Ave., No. 2, Carbondale, II 62901; (618) 529-1120.
International fob club boasts 650 members