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Distinctive Collections: The Smallest Item

What is the smallest item in your collection?

While our Distinctive Collections have many small and fascinating items (a Sumerian clay tablet, a miniature edition of Shakespeare’s plays), the smallest item has to be this tiny seed pod amazingly filled with even tinier carved ivory animals. This item belongs to the James D. Reap, Jr. World War II Collection, which coincidentally also houses one of the largest items from Distinctive Collections (see: Scanning a Panoramic Sketch).


The little red seed comes from the red sandalwood tree, common in India and other tropic areas. Sometimes called the Red Lucky Seed, Circassian Seed, Jumbi-Bead, or magic charm bean, the hollow seeds filled with carved ivory animals (usually elephants) were likely sold or distributed as souvenirs that would bring good luck with each animal inside. This seed, like a fancy perfume bottle, has a carved stopper on top that fits just right. Inside easily and comfortably fits thirteen paper-thin little animals. The animals are intricately carved and some are quite recognizable. There is a camel and a giraffe, an elephant, and other four-legged creatures. Each one is only about 4 mm tall (the giraffe is 6 mm tall) and the seed with stopper measures 8 mm wide and 12 mm height.

We are not sure where Reap acquired it, but it was certainly while overseas between 1944-1946. After enlisting in the Navy in November 1943 and training at Bainbridge, MD and Fort Lauderdale, FL, he was then ordered to San Diego to join the Japanese invasion force. The USS White Marsh took Reap to Pearl Harbor, HI, where he was assigned to the USS Proteus, a submarine tender, as a radar and communications technician. He was stationed at various times at: Guam; Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands; Japan; and Panama. After the war, Reap was honorably discharged from Naval service on April 6, 1946.

Earlier this summer we had a chance to revisit this collection with James D. Reap, Jr.’s son and great-granddaughter during their visit to campus. They fondly remembered the little “ivory zoo” and son James J. Reap recalled his father proudly rolling out the sketch of Yokosuka Naval Base in his basement to show family and friends. The family is happy that the collection is now being preserved with Villanova University’s Distinctive Collections, and excited to see items shared online in the Digital Library.


James J. Reap, ’69 and his granddaughter, Abby, pose with items from the James D. Reap, Jr. World War II Collection.


1 People Like This Post


  1. Comment by Patricia Smith — January 16, 2020 @ 8:59 PM

    I have a seed pod exactly like this. I have no firm memory of where I got it but have had it since I was a little girl, playing with the miniature zoo. I am 66 years old now, so it was quite some time ago. My mother had pen pals and I somehow expect it came from one she had in India. Glad to see another set still also exists!

  2. Comment by Julene Beets — October 29, 2020 @ 4:13 AM

    Hi. I was so surprised to see this Item is on The Internet. I too have one that I also got as a little girl while taking a train trip from old Rhodesia to South Africa with my parents in the early 70’s. I have kept it all these years and although the bean is now a little brittle, it is still intact.

  3. Comment by Lorna Mikkelson — December 7, 2020 @ 9:51 PM

    I have one as well! Been treasuring it for maybe 40 yrs. I found mine in the bottom of a huge box of auction things I bid on here in Wisconsin. Know nothing about it or who had it. I would love to know more.

  4. Comment by Shannon — January 11, 2021 @ 1:27 AM

    I am shocked that I found these on the internet. Ive had these for close to 40 years. Was given to me from my mom. We both have no memory as to how or who or where she got them. Is this now a collectors item? Are they worth anything???

  5. Comment by Rebecca Oviedo — January 12, 2021 @ 11:43 AM

    We can’t comment on value, but clearly these are special and unique items to those who have come across them!

  6. Comment by Debra — March 11, 2021 @ 9:41 PM

    My grandmom had the Elephant seed and several other collectable Elephants. She was a private duty nurse to Roebling daughter in Trenton NJ and their summer home in Spring Lake NJ…
    Roebling owned Roebling steel and cable company ,Roebling and Trenton NJ. Both my grandfathers worked for Roebling Steel in Trenton NewJersey.
    My Poppy,my Dads father was a blacksmith My Pop-Pop was an Engineer and had been the first seasons pro football player fir the Ysnkees(yes a football team in the 20s,straight out of Rutgers University)and also minored in Physical Education and headed the Recreation Depth for Roeblings various workers teams like bowling,baseball,basketball etc…Tgese special steel wired cables are used on Brooklyn and Golden Gate suspension bridges and many others…

  7. Comment by Rebecca Oviedo — April 23, 2021 @ 4:05 PM

    Thanks for the comment! We have a photo album by Emily Warren Roebling in our Digital Library you might be interested in:!

  8. Comment by LJ Hatch — March 28, 2021 @ 4:43 AM

    I too have 2 of these. Would love to know more about them. They came from my grandmother. Curious for more info.

  9. Comment by Susan Wolkowicz — May 25, 2021 @ 1:17 AM

    We live in Sydney Australia. My husband bought our red seed with its ivory stopper and the little animals inside in the 1960s from a shop near the Malvern Station in Melbourne. It was a shop with small carved items. We are 87 and 77 and have just given the red seed to a young family who will treasure it as we have. The mother of that family did some research and forwarded your link to us. Thank you to the Collection Dept and to all those writing about theirs.

  10. Comment by Tina — June 2, 2021 @ 1:40 PM

    I have one of these ivory tiny elephants. It was my grandfather’s when he was in the army based in India. They were given out to the soldier’s for good luck or so I was told.

  11. Comment by Jill Lowe — July 7, 2021 @ 1:07 PM

    I have one given to me by my first grade teacher. I still have the original box from Shopping International Inc. Shipped from Norwich Vermont 02/07/1968.

  12. Comment by Jan — August 20, 2021 @ 11:28 AM

    I have one that my sister bought for me at Expo 1967 in Montreal Canada.

  13. Comment by Vicki — November 3, 2021 @ 7:05 AM

    I too have this, but unfortunately one little guys missing.
    My father worked with diamond drilling equipment and it was a gifted to us from some associates who visited Canada.
    Love it ❣️

  14. Comment by Brenda Hillis — December 14, 2021 @ 4:06 PM

    After my husband passed away in 2018 he left me a pea size m&m with 177 to 182 ivory elephants , need a microscope and wear a mask to see them. And I sure they don’t blow away, Fansinating ! It’s nice to know there are others out there. I’m actually looking for someone who collects these items? I have no use for them

  15. Comment by Holly — February 23, 2022 @ 2:04 PM

    I had one as a child, but I don’t know what happened to it. I think my father might have put it away to save it, but who knows where?

    It was such a favorite of mine. We had world travelers in our home all of the time. I think it perhaps came from India.

  16. Comment by The BOSS — February 27, 2022 @ 2:33 PM

    I have a red seed with one ivory elephant hand carved with ivory stopper and “1940 New York Worlds Fair” printed on box. It is great condition in the original box. Mother woned then sister now in family since I was born 81 years! Value speculating based on age and condition and where from $1,500 – $20,000

  17. Comment by Rebecca Oviedo — March 16, 2022 @ 2:40 PM

    We are loving the comments still rolling in after this was posted almost three years ago! It is great to read your stories!

  18. Comment by Edward Pickens — May 9, 2022 @ 5:00 AM

    I have a pod with six animal carved out of ivory excellent quality 70 yes old from afica how much would it be worth

  19. Comment by Wanda iskrzak — May 20, 2022 @ 2:21 PM

    Hi my mother had the same item from her uncle who served in India in the war. The item along with her jewellery box was stolen from Toton Nottinghan 3 weeks ago, could I ask if any one becomes aware of any coming on to the market, that you could let me know.
    Long shot I know, but sentimental value to all the family
    Thank you

  20. Comment by Lesly Biro — July 25, 2022 @ 5:40 PM

    I have some I brought back from India in 1959 when I was 19 years old. I am 82 now. I saw them on the Antique roadshow once and they valued them at £100 each.

  21. Comment by Mark — August 8, 2022 @ 3:17 PM

    Where can I get the bean with the elephants in it. Had one as a little kid

  22. Comment by Rebecca Oviedo — August 17, 2022 @ 10:50 AM

    Again we cannot comment on value or anything, but we have seen these listed for sale on ebay occasionally.

  23. Comment by Sally Gowan — September 9, 2022 @ 12:09 PM

    I have an elephant door stopper. On the. Bottom it has these numbers
    607183 under this is HHLA

  24. Comment by Amanda walker — November 5, 2022 @ 4:54 AM

    My father gave me one as a little girl living in Bharain….i have no.idea what happened to it but i loved it……often think about it and would absolutley love to buy one…..i live in uk and one source doesnt deliver to uk…
    Any suggestions wouls be greatly recieved…….fingers crossed…
    It has been a dream of mine to replace it…..

  25. Comment by David Cantor — January 27, 2023 @ 6:19 PM

    I bought one of these seed pods with tiny slivers of ivory elephants from a street vendor in Mahabalipuram, India (near what is now Chennai) in 1972. I be
    Ie e the cost was 1 rupee. I have no idea what happened to it.

  26. Comment by Lori Sender — April 26, 2023 @ 4:37 PM

    Oh boy i’ve been talking about these seeds for the last 50 years and stopping by at places all over New York City and Boston to find these seeds. Last time I had some was when I was at Rutgers university in 1974. I had a girlfriend Bernice, she was Asian she lived on my floor. We were really good friends. She showed them to me one day she put them in the palm of my hand and sprinkled out the little animals and I was just in awe and she show me where she got it in New Brunswick,NJ. There used to be a lot of these little Portuguese stores or maybe they were Asian I can’t really remember but I did buy them back then. But I never held onto it and I would love to get some more. Does anybody make them anymore. I’m guessing it would be from something other than ivory. Loved seeing this photo and reading the background story!!

  27. Comment by Rhonda — October 17, 2023 @ 5:50 PM

    I was given my collection by a young man many years ago. It includes a crucifix, camel, ox, 4 elephants, giraffe, lama, and what looks like a lion. They have been in my drawer for many decades and I would love to sell them to anyone interested.

  28. Comment by Helen — October 30, 2023 @ 1:58 PM

    I have a pod with about 7 or 8 tiny elephants inside. It belonged to my mum who was born in India. I think her grandmother gave it to her. I was fascinated by it as a child. My mum was always careful with it. My mum recently passed and this little pod means the world to me. The pod is with all the lovely Anglo Indian memorabilia

  29. Comment by Jeremy barnhart — December 9, 2023 @ 6:17 AM

    This is so cool. I did not think that I would find anything about these on the internet. I too have one with about seven carved animals in it of different various different different ones not just elephants believe it was my grandpa’s. He was in the war and world war II overseas and I found in some of my grandma’s stuff after she passed a few years back, put it in my desk and forgot about it and recently was looking for something else and came across it and now I’m doing a little research.

  30. Comment by Caroline Ruiz — January 16, 2024 @ 4:15 PM

    My mother went to Israel in the early 1970’s and brought me one as a gift. I just loved it so much!

  31. Comment by Melanie — February 13, 2024 @ 10:17 AM

    Hi, I have the micro elephants but mine are in a case with a hand-cut magnifying glass to see them, I got this from my grandmother, I thought maybe one of her sons brought it back from overseas when they were in the Vietnam war.

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Last Modified: August 14, 2019

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