Behold the child, by Nature's kindly law,
Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw,
Some livelier plaything gives his youth delight...
Alexander Pope, Essay On Man
The word "toys" as we use it today, meaning exclusively playthings for children, was not in common use until the nineteenth century. Up to this time and even into the early 1800s the word "toy" was used to describe anything from an adult bauble of little or no value, a trifle, to a costly miniature such as a piece of silver furniture made by the finest silversmith of the day.
A Brief History of Toys
Antique Toys Operated by Santa Barbara
Antique Toys, this site offers an antique toy gallery, useful information for collectors
and links to other sites.
Old Wood Toys A list of books about
antique wood toys, including some out-of-print books.
Rockwell Museum of Antique Toys The antique toy
collection at the Rockwell Museum includes American and European manufactured toys,
model and toy trains, cast iron and tin toys, dolls, and cast iron banks.
What were the first toys? Archaeological evidence suggests they were the same kinds of things today's children use in play. Centuries ago, Roman, Babylonian, Greek and Egyptian children had balls, rattles,dolls, toy animals, hoops, kites, marbles, stilts and tops. Some had dominoes and checkers. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has an Egyptian rattle in its collection. Estimated to be over 2,000 years old, it is shaped like a cow, with some stones inside. Other toys from this same time period have been found: a baker kneading bread, a crocodile snapping its jaws, and a dog whose jaw and tail move.
Many early toy-like objects - such as dolls and animals - were closely related to religious observances, so that it is sometimes difficult to tell the differences between these and the real toys of children's play. The oldest clearly identified toys were unearthed on the site of a 3300-year-old temple in Iran. These small, carved, limestone figures of a lion and a porcupine are mounted on wheeled platforms and pulled along by a string. An even more remarkable early discovery is a crude doll with movable arms and legs, which kneads bread or grinds corn when a string is pulled.
Before the arrival of the white man in America, Native children played with cornhusk dolls, small bows and arrows, and leather balls stuffed with feathers. In 1585 the members of the Roanoke Expedition brought dolls in Elizabethan dress for the children they expected to find in the new country. The illustration on the left, a sketch from the work of expedition historian John White, shows a young native girl holding a doll in Elizabethan attire.
A growing concern with education was felt, as it was realized that to be illiterate was a disadvantage in a world of expanding small business. In 1658 Jan Amos Komensky, a Czech educator, wrote the first picture book for children.
In the 1700s a freer intellectual atmosphere was felt almost everywhere. Parents began to think in terms of their children's happiness as well as their moral well-being. This changed attitude was reflected in an expanding toy trade. Toy shops began to appear. Benjamin Franklin wrote about a toy store in Boston in 1713 where, for a few coppers, he was able to buy a whistle. In 1785, an advertisement in the Independent Gazetteer of Philadelphia listed dolls, drums and toy harps for sale. The doll depicted at the right is believed to be the oldest surviving doll in the United States. The doll is named "Letitia Penn" after the daughter of William Penn, who brought the doll from Europe to Pennsylvania in 1699.
The advent of the Industrial Revolution changed both the character of toys and the ability of workers to manufacture them in larger quantities. Native materials such as wood, straw and stone were rapidly displaced by iron and tinplate. Children were able to acquire manufactured toys at reasonable prices instead of having to make their own, a trend that accelerated as both factory production and distribution systems expanded. Toys also became more and more sophisticated. By the end of the 19th century, construction toys were appearing. The early twentieth century saw great popularity for electric trains and other powered mechanical toys.
Wars caused problems for toy producers. Production was hampered, and sometimes ceased altogether, as a result of shortages of both materials and labor. World Wars I and II were particularly disruptive, with many toy manufacturers converting all production to war materials.
Following World War II, toy production gradually changed. New toys, particularly space toys with plastic parts such as robots and rocket ships, became extremely popular. Most of these have been made in Japan, where electrical and battery-operated toys have gradually come to replace those animated by spring-driven motors. The growth of television and video games has affected traditional pastimes.
But the longing of some parents and children for more conventional toys has led to a resurgence of the wooden-toy and stuffed-toy industries. Today's toy industry remains a blend of the revolutionary and the traditional in many ways changed, but in other ways much the same as it was fifty or a hundred years ago.
Excavations in ancient Egyptian ruins show that children enjoyed a variety of toys: balls made of painted wood or glazed papyrus and reeds; spinning tops of wood, papyrus, or stone; pull toys and dolls fashioned from ivory, gold, wood, bronze, and clay. Some wooden animals had moveable parts, like the jaws of tigers and crocodiles.
Greek and Roman children had balls and tops, too, and many little terracotta animals. Babies played with animal-shaped rattles - like fat little clay pigs. Horses were favorites - including models of the famous Trojan Horse.
Many toys of this period were designed to develop physical fitness. Some, like the hoop, were used by both children and adults.
Kites were another ancient plaything enjoyed by young and old. The Chinese, who invented kites over 3,000 years ago, developed many variations and even used them in practical ways, such as sending signals to distant points. The Chinese or Japanese invented the whipped top at an early date. These became so popular dozens of different types spread throughout Asia and the Middle East.
Toys reflect society
As long has toys have existed, they have reflected the cultures that produced them. Toys may reflect popular styles of clothing, activities, occupations, social standards and social conditions. As an example, consider transportation toys: Boats, wheeled vehicles and,later, planes all mirror the modes and styles of transport of the period when they were produced. Dolls and other toys often reflect period clothing styles, as does the 1930s era wind-up toy on the left. Today's toys continue to reflect society: Barbie's outfits, GI Joe's tanks, the designs of toy cars, the advent of computer games, and the amazing variety of toy athletic items all say something about the world we live in.
Parental concerns about the violent nature of some toys also have historic roots, as toy weapons and military equipment date back to pre-classical times, reflecting an era when the males of the family were expected to defend their homes and perform military service as required.
Toys in Europe
Toys were often made at home of simple materials, or in the case of wealthier classes, in small quantities by skilled craftsmen. During the Middle Ages the large network of fairs that sprang up across Europe created a demand for goods to sell.
Many reflected the life around them - knights, horses, and figures of saints. One of the earliest and most long-lasting of these toys was the hobby-horse. Often it was a simple, carved stick, but many had elaborate trappings, and some in later years had rockers to provide the young riders with movement.
German craftsmen, with their unlimited supply of material from the Black Forest, specialized in beautifully carved and painted toys. Craftsmen's guilds established strict standards to ensure quality, and Nuremberg became a center for distribution of toys of all kinds. Gradually German toy manufacturers came to dominate the market.
By the end of the 19th century large German factories were turning out dolls, mechanical toys, and construction sets, as well as the standard favorites from the past. These toys were attractive and of high quality, in spite of being mass produced, and could be sold for a reasonable price. They were so popular in the United States that before World War I, American merchants purchased one quarter of the factories' output.
Toys in the United States
Early New England Puritans strongly discouraged children from playing with toys. At one time, they even forbade the celebration of Christmas. Early America was caught up in the Puritan work ethic, and play was thought to be nonproductive.
Children were considered miniature adults, and since no laws existed to protect them, children were forced to work alongside adults. With labor being scarce, young people's work was essential to the community's survival.
Only on Sundays were children allowed to play with toys, and then only if the toy taught a moral lesson. These toys taught biblical history, such as the story of Noah's Ark. Many of these "Sunday" toys were quite elaborate, considering the austerity of the time period, such as this European set made in 1800. A Noah's Ark toy could carry up to one hundred pairs of animals as well as Noah and his family. As a result of societal restrictions, children often created their own toys from left-over materials. Sometimes Indian traditions were adopted, such as the making of dolls from corncobs.
In spite of the heavy work emphasis, 17th- and 18th- century children indulged in many simple games whenever there was an opportunity. Boys especially managed to escape supervision in order to play cricket, football, tag and hide-and-seek, although all these games were forbidden at one time or another.
The Southern colonies were considerably freer and more affluent. With hired or slave labor to perform the harder work, there was more time and energy to spend on amusements, which often scandalized travelers from the North. Most of these Southern toys were imported from Europe.
Despite New England strict environment, it was there that America's toy industry actually started. A multitude of home industries awakened in the North, drawing on the region's traditions of self-discipline and hard work. Many farmers, shunning idleness even after a full day's work, whittled away in the evenings on a toy doll or animal. This hand-carved pull toy, a wooden horse, made in the Pennsylvania Dutch region about 1880, might have been one such object. Its tail is made of hemp and it is equipped with a typical Pennsylvania Dutch hex sign.
But all in all, life in New England was austere:The arrival of later waves of immigrants eased religious strictures and play with toys became a more widely accepted practice. By the early 1700s, toy stores were scattered throughout the American Colonies.
Although American-made toys were sold here from the beginning, many toy stores were stocked with European toys, with most imports arriving from Germany. Initially, American merchants visited Europe to obtain toys for their shops, but by the end of the eighteenth century the seller was beginning to get into direct touch with his customers by means of catalogs and price lists.
The venerable F. A. O. Schwarz Toy Store of New York City, whose founder came to America from Westphalia, was started in 1862. It is one of the oldest toy stores in the United States and still serves as a barometer for the latest in toy designs.
Cast iron toys
The discovery of bog-iron in North America meant that this material could be used to cast toys. Although the Revolutionary War brought a halt to toy production, by 1785 the standard of living was increasing as was the population. The iron foundries that had boomed during the war turned to the production of what were to become specially American forms of playthings: the cast-iron bank, stove, and pull-toy. European makers had also been using iron for toys since the 18th century, but with the exception of some English banks, they never fully exploited the advantages of this material. Americans, however, were quick to see its virtues and American manufacturers excelled in cast-iron toys.
With the Industrial Revolution in full swing, toys began to be manufactured in the United States in large quantities. Although some shops sold toys along with wheelbarrows and bedsteads, other stores developed that specialized in one type of toy. For example, the Philadelphia Tin Toy Manufactory was founded in the 1850s to sell only tinplate toys, including stationary, pull, and clockwork ones, all painted by hand. Similar shops were run by George W. Brown, Leo Schlesinger, and James Fallows, who also manufactured their own tin toys.
Most cast-iron toys appeared relatively late on the American scene. J. & E. Stevens of Connecticut, one of the first and ultimately largest producers, advertised cast-iron Fire Cracker Pistols in 1859. But the industry got into high gear only after the Civil War, fueled in part by the discovery of vast iron ore reserves. Other many types were made, by far the most important cast-iron toys to collectors are the banks and vehicles. Cast iron was a common toy material from the 1870s until World War II. Ideally suited for mass production, the iron was cast in molds that could be used thousands of times. Cast-iron toys were decorated by dipping the pieces in a basic color and then painting the details by hand.
The majority of cast-iron toys were made in the United States up until the start of World War II, when production ceased.
Tin is a soft and malleable metal that rarely occurs uncombined in nature(it is chiefly found in the mineral cassiterite or tinstone). It is mined throughout the world, but for centuries, its main source was from Cornwall, England. When thin layers of steel or iron are dipped in molten tin, the end product is called tinplate. (This is the way tin cans are made.) The tinplated sheets are then litographed or otherwise decorated, then stamped and formed into the required shape.
The tin toy industry in this country can be traced to the 1840s and perhaps even earlier. Tinsmiths, realizing the potential toy market, began to create toys from the scraps left over from a day's work. Tin toys started to replace handmade and factory-produced wooden toys; by the 1860s companies had developed solely for the manufacture of tin plate toys. Some early tin toys were created with no attention to proportions: tiny horses pulled enormous streetcars-it adds to their charm today.
Names like George Brown of Connecticut (active from 1850 to 1889); James Fallows of Pennsylvania (1890s); Francis, Field & Francis of New York (1850-1860); and Althof Bergmann of New York (1860s) became legendary and stand for the best of the American tin toys. Jerome Secor of Connecticut, originally a clock maker, manufactured some toys. However, one of the most famous tin toy makers of all was the Edward Ives Company, also of Connecticut. Founded in the 1860s, the Ives Company is recognized today mainly for its toy trains. With its straightforward and honest approach to manufacturing, it produced nothing but the best quality toys for over seventy years. The Ives Company was bought out by Lionel in the 1930s.
During the late 1860 and 1870s, toy factories turned out tin toys by the tens of millions. Tin horses pulling wagons, fire engines, trains, horses in hoops, and complete kitchens (sometimes equipped with a working water pump) were among the many toys that children received as presents during this time. Tinplate remained popular into the 1930s and 1940s, but was then replaced by less expensive plastic components. The swinging monkey dates to about 1930.
Mattel and Barbie
In 1955 Mattel, Inc., became a toy industry leader with its pioneering contract to advertise its products on television as a sponsor of the brand-new program "The Mickey Mouse Club." No other toy company had ever invested so much in TV advertising: Mattel signed up for a full year, at $500,000 (just about the company's net worth at the time).
In 1959, Mattel introduced Barbie. Toy retailers gave Barbie a cool reception when she debuted at the annual Toy Fair in New York, but as she trickled into the stores, the consumer reaction was enthusiastic: the first shipments sold out. By 1963, Sears Catalog devoted eight full pages to Barbie and her accessories. The original Barbie sold for $3.
The Marklin Company, despite significant competition from rivals in the Nuremberg area, was and continues to be one of the most prominent German toymakers. From 1888, when the firm became known as Gebruder Marklin (the Marklin Brothers), it expanded steadily, becoming a major supplier of mechanical toys to the international market. The battleship "Dreadnaught" electrically powered mechanical toy (ca. 1909) shows Marklin's attention to detail and quality.
The company was started in 1859 by Theodor and Caroline Marklin shortly after their marriage. The couple built metal toys for doll house kitchens; this was a natural progression from Theodor's job as a sheet metal worker. From the outset they ran the business together; he was responsible for production, she for sales. Caroline was one of the first, if not the first, female sales representative. Her marketing talents took her throughout Germany and Switzerland. Dedicated to the expansion of the business, her intention was to build it up for her children to inherit.
Theodor died suddenly in 1868 and Caroline, a strong and courageous woman who was related to the composer Liszt, was largely responsible for the survival of the business after Theodor's death. Caroline was left with the responsibility of raising five children and the running of the business.
Caroline struggled with the company and refused to admit defeat for over twenty years. By 1888, two of her sons joined the firm, and in 1892, a new partner, Emil Friz, was found who injected capital into the business. Friz was determined to make the company the biggest and best toy manufacturer in the world. Caroline died in 1893 and under Friz's auspices, steady expansion occurred. By 1900 prizes were being won abroad for some of Marklin's excellent products. Another partner, Richard Safft, joined the company in 1907. His role was to expand foreign trade; his well-documented gift for languages was a great asset
In 1895, the main catalog offered 550 different lines of toys; by 1902 that number had expanded to 1650. After Safftwas affiliated with Marklin in 1907, the catalogs show even more inventive toys. The inspiration for Marklin toys was real life. The pages of its catalogs are filled with such representative items as snow ploughs, the pictured 1900 railroad station, central heating railway cars and Red Cross carriages, and the "Fidelitas" circus road train(1909),including clowns.
It is little wonder, then that the toys produced by Marklin from 1895-1914 are especially sought after by collectors. Marklin shut down toy production during World War I and concentrated upon producing war material.
A History of Dolls
The word "doll" comes from the Greek work, "eidolon", meaning idol. The first doll-like figures to survive throughout the centuries were not dolls at all but religious images, mainly of a funereal nature. Some scholars have advanced the theory that the religious figures, as they lost their significance, were handed over as toys to children. Among the extraordinarily wealth of figures left behind by the Egyptians are artifacts that most probably were dolls.
Dolls were certainly known to both Greeks and Romans. Most dolls from ancient Greece were jointed, fashioned of burnt clay, with the limbs separately hooked on by string or cord, and with a strong resemblance to the modern jointed doll. A young Greek girl would dedicate her doll and its wardrobe to the goddess Artemis when she married at the age of twelve. Rag dolls were common by Roman times.
The earliest European dolls to survive are made of clay; the soil of old Strasbourg revealed specimens dating from the thirteenth century. A doll-maker is recorded as working at Nuremberg as early as 1413. But the mid-European forests provided doll-makers with their best material: wood. Eventually dolls were made from wax, paper mache, porcelain, bisque, and after 1851, rubber, the ideal material for the doll to be hugged and handled. This was the date of the first patented rubber doll for Goodyear. Today most dolls are made from vinyl, a flexible plastic which tints easily to imitate skin tones.
The early Europeans who wanted to colonize America (as early as 1585) gave dolls to the Native Americans as gifts. They seemed pleased with the Elizabethan dolls which were so different from their own corn-husk, bead and feather dolls.
Dolls with moving eyes first appeared in England about 1825. The eyes opened and shut by means of a wire coming out of the body at the waist line, easily concealed by the voluminous dresses of the period.
The first speaking dolls were made in the 1820s by Frenchman Johann Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome for the piano. By 1823, Maelzel displayed dolls that said "Maman" when their left hands were raised to shoulder level and "Papa" when their right hands were raised. Maelzel took out a patent in 1834.
Early pictures of children with actual "baby" dolls in their arms did not appear until the 1820s. Before this, the dolls that children played with resembled miniature adults: tiny, exquisitely and formally dressedjust like the child herself.
Today, dolls come in every shape and form, and mechanically perform tasks that rival the activities of their human counterparts. Like many toys, some dolls are not designed for children at all, but are made to appeal directly to the play instinct latent in most adults.
Doll houses can reveal a great deal about the culture of the people who built them and for four centuries, people have been building miniature houses that reflected life at that time. The earliest doll house on record (1558) is a German one, but Holland is also famous for its early doll houses that were actually miniature rooms built as cabinets.
Mainly, early doll houses were the property of the very rich. This was an era of elegant frivolity; having a doll house was a popular hobby and those who could, indulged themselves in magnificent ones. It is questionable whether these early doll houses were in fact toys at all. They were probably too delicate and valuable to have been used by a child.
The people who built the doll houses were also the architects who designed the elaborate mansions of the time. Many of the doll house accessories were created from silver: silver coaches, horses, soldiers, and utensils. Silverware of this sort was so highly prized in the seventeenth century that it was actually mentioned in people's wills. By the eighteenth century, the furniture for the doll house was often made by Chippendale.
Nineteenth century doll houses were not as elegant as those of the preceding century but they were more suitable for child's play. In the early 1800s, a eries of doll houses were manufactured that were plain, thinly painted to represent stone, had three or four rooms, and no staircase. However, accessories ere quite elaborate, with kitchenware becoming a specialty. Miniature flat-irons, tin candy boxes, and colorful food were a must for every doll house. Tiny silver tableware was now replaced by china. These accessories have been called minor works of art.
One of the most exquisite doll houses in existence was built in 1924, when the English palace of Queen Mary was reproduced. It illustrates how royalty lived in the early twentieth century, and included books in the library written by contemporary authors in their own hands, and bathroom floors made of African marble and mother-of-pearl. In the cellar were bottles with real wine, and a gramophone in the nursery played God Save the King. Obviously, this doll house was not intended as a toy.
However, the twentieth century saw doll houses that could increasingly be enjoyed by children. The doll house of the 1930s were strong, as opposed to beautiful. In the 1950s and 1960s, for about $5, department stores offered a two-story doll house with lithographed steel facade that came off to reveal the treasures that lay behind. It had all the appliances that postwar economy made affordable, including a console television set and a washer and dryer. In 1956 the Marx Toy Company sold a fourteen-piece doll family for 95 cents that included a mother and father, a kitten, and eleven children!
In the 1830s the toymaker Benjamin Potter Crandall sold doll carriages billed as "the first baby carriages manufactured in America" for $1.50. The first model was a simple carriage with two wheels and no rear axle. Later carriages were elegant four-wheeled machines with springs and fringed tops. A Crandall doll carriage made in 1867 even had a leather hood. The Crandalls were at work virtually throughout the century improving their carriages, as is evident from their many patents, including one which may have been the first folding carriage.
Another company, Ellis, Britton and Eaton (also known as the Vermont Novelty Works) was also active in this market. Their catalog for 1866 shows as many as forty different doll carriages and perambulators. They sold 7,000 of one model, a toy gig for dolls with a top that folded back; and 6,000 of another, a toy cart with a bright painted body.
Gender and Toys
Boys and girls show little difference in toy preference during the preschool years. But something happens around the age of five that divides children: girls start playing with dolls and boys with soldiers - and more. Boys want all kinds of playthings and girls seem to settle on dolls as their favorite toys. Why does this happen?
The toy industry blames the dearth of girl products on conservative parents who don't want their sons to play with dolls and who won't buy racing cars for their daughters. Executives for the toy industry claim any sexist charges are unfounded because toy makers would want to double their sales by marketing girls' toys. (There are more than $14 billion worth of toys bought annually in the United States).
But the industry's advertising patterns suggest it is more interested in pushing boys' toys than altering toy-buying patterns. Among the most advertised toys in 1993, 11 of the top 15 were aimed at boys, three at girls, and one was gender-neutral, according to an ad-tracking firm.
This disparity stems at least partly from the fact that parents are more generous with sons than daughters when it comes to toys, even when male-oriented video games are excluded.
Boys account for 60% of toy purchases among kids aged four to seven. The gender gap widens as kids get older - at ages eight to nine, boys prompt 62% of total toy purchases, and 70% at 10 to 12.The parental spending gap may reflect the fact that girls mature faster than boys and start asking for clothes, cassette tapes and other non-toy gifts in their preteen years.
Lately, though, some companies are trying to introduce more girl-oriented products. For instance, there are now several software companies specifically for girls. These interactive programs provide girls with computer experiences that will prepare them for a technologically advanced future.
(Excerpts from a September 23, 1994, Wall Street Journal Article, by Joseph Pereira. In 2001, are these observations still valid?)
The development of mechanical toys has a long and complex history. Over 2,000 years ago ancient Greeks used wind and water to power moving statues, man-made singing birds, and self-opening doors.
In medieval times moving dolls and mechanical birds were known in India and Arabia and were displayed in European fairs. Peasants viewed such mysterious devices with suspicion, and the Church condemned them as instruments of the devil.
The wealthy and powerful welcomed these entertaining objects, however. In 1509 Leonardo da Vinci presented Louis XII with a mechanical lion that moved the length of a long hall, stopped in front of the king, and placed a fleur-de-lis at his feet. In 1632 King Gustavus Adolphus received an extremely expensive cabinet in which two lavishly dressed dolls danced together.
In the 17th century, Louis XIV was given a richly decorated miniature carriage with horses and servants. When the carriage had traveled the length of the table and stopped in front of the king, a little doll got out, curtseyed, presented a petition, returned to the carriage, and drove off.
In the second half of the 18th century a Swiss watchmaker, Pierre Joquet-Droz and his son, Henry, became so famous for their ingenuity, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette invited them to court. Among their inventions was "The Writer," a young doll that could write correctly and move as though he were copying from another paper. Another invention was "The Designer," a figure who drew pictures in the likeness of the king. Yet another device, "The Musician," featured a young girl, seated at a clavichord, who appeared to play a familiar tune while moving to the music.
However, one of their most famous creations was a clock that played nine tunes. Its embellishments included a woman seated on a balcony who waved her hand and took pinches of snuff, a flute-playing shepherd, a bleating lamb, and a dog that barked if anyone touched the tiny basket of apples he was guarding.
The gondola depicted here dates from the late sixteenth century and is part of the Hapsburg collection. Attributed to Hans Schlottheim of Augsburg, it is one of the earliest surviving automatic toys.
Few of the public ever saw these elaborate toys. Eventually, though, the use of clockworks became more common and simpler mechanisms were invented. By the Victorian age, mechanical monkeys were very popular figures and might be displayed in shop windows smoking or drinking tea as a way of advertising those products.
By the 1880s small steam engines activated miniature fire engines, locomotives, and boats. Small electric batteries powered railroads and doll swings. The modern era had arrived.
American Wood, Tinplate, and Cast-Iron Toys
Toys in America were made from the vast supply of natural resources that dotted the land: wood, tin and iron. Between 1800 and 1850 several small American firms made wood toys, but in quantities far too small to be considered mass produced. Large-scale toymaking was not established until the nation began to industrialize rapidly after the Civil War. Among the early toymakers was the Crandall family who created wood toys for three generations of shoppers in Pennsylvania and New York.
In the early 19th century, a few Connecticut tinsmiths made simple tinplate toys such as bubble pipes and whistles. Tinplate consists of thin sheets of steel covered with tin. Before the tin ore mines were opened in Galena, Illinois in the 1840s, most American tin had to be imported, making all tinplate products fairly expensive. The introduction of the mechanical stamping machine for metal in Europe allowed tinplate to be quickly stamped into shape through the use of dies and heavy presses. American manufacturers gradually began to apply these European innovations to toys. Many early American tinplate toys had clockwork motors, some of which ran up to half an hour.
During the 1880s European toymakers began to manufacture inexpensive spring-driven tinplate toys on a vast scale, capturing a major share of the American market. Their products were charming and much less expensive than American tinplate clockwork toys because they used stamped tinplate gears rather than heavy brass gears. By 1900 one-third of all tinplate toys made in Germany were sold in the United States.
Recognizing the great potential of this expanding market, American firms also began to produce large quantities of spring-driven tinplate toys in the early 20th century, sacrificing quality for low-cost production. Production of tinplate toys were discontinued during World War II, and after the war, a large number of these toys were made by Asian companies. Now, most tinplate toy production has ceased in America.
The specialty of American toy manufacturers was in cast-iron toys. With its rich deposits of iron ore, coal, and limestone, all necessary for the production of usable iron, the United States was destined to become a world leader in the iron industry. This occurred after the Civil War, when an unprecedented demand for iron for railroads, pipelines and bridges encouraged mineral extraction and smelting companies to expand the available supply of iron and reduce its relative cost, making it a suitable material for toys. At the same time, improvements in casting technology also helped reduce costs. Although European makers had been using iron for wheels and other components of tinplate or wooden toys since the 18th century, they never really exploited the advantages of this material.
Americans, however, were quick to see its virtues. The most popular cast-iron toys (among collectors today) are the banks and vehicles. Though gradually supplanted by other, cheaper metals, cast iron continued to be used to make toys until World War II. The beautifully painted clown's head on the left is part of a cast-iron bank patented in 1882 by C. G. Shepard.
The term clockwork is often used to describe the elaborate gear movement of European automata. However, only American toys were made with actual clock mechanisms. From trains and steamboats to figures that dance or do chores, American clockwork toys are among the most charming late 19th-century toys. They were produced for only thirty years, primarily in the Northeast, the center of the clockmaking industry. Costly to manufacture, these toys were sold for $2.50 to 4.50, an expensive price at the time. Two of the principal makers of clockwork toys were George Brown who introduced the toys in 1860, and E. R. Ives, both of Connecticut. The wood and cast iron piano player on the right was produced by Ives in 1885 (using a Secor piano), and actually produces a tune.
Clockwork toys are activated by a key-wound spring that operates levers and rods connected to the movable parts. Heavy-gauge brass gears of various sizes allow parts of the toy to run at different speeds. Once wound, some toys can work for up to thirty minutes.
Spring-driven and Friction Toys
Non-clockwork mechanical toys are of two types: spring-driven and friction. Spring-driven were first made in the United States about 1895, but they did not became popular until after World War I. In cars and other vehicles, the spring is wound by a key. These toys have inexpensive stamped tinplate gears instead of the heavy-gauge brass gears seen on clockwork toys, and they run for only two or three minutes. In some stationary mechanical toys, such as banks, the spring is activated by a lever rather than a key.
Friction toys are wheeled toys operated by a central inertia wheel,called a friction wheel. American toys have a heavy, cast-iron friction wheel. It is activated by spinning the rear wheels of the toy against a surface. When the toy is then placed on the ground, the friction wheel provides momentum to the toy's ordinary wheel. In contrast, European friction toys have a small, cast-lead friction wheel connected to a pulley that is activated by being spun like a top.
The art of making mechanical toys was known as early as the third century B.C . and the Roman writer Petronius in the first century A.D. refers to a silver doll which could move like a human being.
Medieval and pre-medieval history of Europe reveals that moving images of one sort or another were constantly billed as novel attractions at fairs.
Amusements in America
Frank Bellow wrote the following statement in 1866 about his fellow Americans, in his book, The Art of Amusing:
"Perhaps one of the great social faults of the American is, that he does not amuse himself enough, at least in a cheerful, innocent manner. We are never jolly. We are terribly troubled about our dignity. All other nations, the French, the German, the Italian, and even the...English, have their relaxation, their merry-making; but we, why, a political or prayer-meeting is about the most hilarious affair in which we ever indulge."
Bellow went on to explain to his readers over one hundred " merry games, odd tricks, curious puzzles, and new charades" that were guaranteed to amuse "some desperate individual(s)."
The Museum of American Heritage hopes that this exhibit, Toys and More, amuses, entertains, and enlightens our visitors. We wish to show that if Bellow had written his book just forty years later, he would see what a fun-loving nation we were becoming. Bellow would also be surprised that fourteen billion dollars worth of toys are sold annually in the United States as of the original date of this exhibit.
In Memoriam: George (Tad) Cody (1933-1993)
The toys which formed the basis of this toy exhibit are from the Tad Cody collection.
George (Tad) Cody was born October 4, 1933 in Los Angeles, California. After his family moved to the Bay Area, Tad went to Mountain View High School and then to Stanford University, graduating in 1956.
In 1964, he established George Cody Architect, later known as Cody Associates, a design-driven architectural firm that he continued to lead until his untimely death from pancreatic cancer on November 21, 1993. An enthusiastic supporter of the Museum of American Heritage, Tad served on the Museum's Community Advisory Board and was particularly interested in introducing the public to "great stuff" through innovative displays. It is especially appropriate that items from his own toy and train collection were displayed during the opening of the Museum's new home.
An architect, sculptor, toy manufacturer and fine jewelry maker, Tad's collection was driven by his highly developed design aesthetic. He was attracted to items that were beautifully planned and carefully manufactured. If a steam engine had that added "something" that made the mechanism click softly as the gears meshed or if some long-ago figure painter had created an elegant face or a subtle gesture, he was delighted. Toys, trains, figures, steam engines, fine tools, even machine guns were just as beautiful and interesting to him as a well designed building.
Tad began collecting trains seriously in 1963 after receiving a Christmas gift of an antique standard gauge locomotive and cars. He discovered the Train Collectors of America and never looked back. He loved the hunt, revealing an added dimension of his personality that can only be described as the reincarnation of an itinerant trader. If he could trade something he neither wanted or needed, he was pleased. If he could then trade the new acquisition once again he was in heaven. One stellar trade started with a discarded floor furnace from a remodeling project and escalated to a valuable iron bank.
Some favorites from his collection are indicative of his tastes. They are either beautifully designed, carefully made or they made him laugh. Tad was a great believer in the "animation" of displays with figures, odd bits and even changes in scale. Much of this exhibit attempted to re-create what he called "set-ups." He was enamored of the folk quality of toys, the beauty of toys, and the way they reflected their own time in history.
Tad's widow, Marybelle Cody, is carrying on Tad's tradition through her loan to the Museum of many of Tad's precious toys for our exhibits. We wish to thank Marybelle for her thoughtfulness and, as we enjoy so many toys from Tad's collection, we think of him in fondness.
The Knopf Collectors' Guides to American Antiques, TOYS
Blair Whitton, Alfred A. Knopf, New York,1984. pp. 12-33.
"Marklin, 1895-1914", Introduction
Charlotte Parry-Crooke, Principal Consultant,
Gilles Herve, Denys Ingram Publishers, London, 1983.
Antique Toys Operated by Santa Barbara Antique Toys, this site offers an antique toy gallery, useful information for collectors and links to other sites.
Old Wood Toys A list of books about antique wood toys, including some out-of-print books.
Rockwell Museum of Antique Toys The antique toy collection at the Rockwell Museum includes American and European manufactured toys, model and toy trains, cast iron and tin toys, dolls, and cast iron banks.
MOAH Exhibits: Wayland Lee
MOAH also acknowledges the generous financial support of the Civic Bank of Commerce
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This page last updated: December 25, 2003
Copyright © Museum of American Heritage
MOAH Exhibits: Wayland Lee
MOAH also acknowledges the generous financial support of the Civic Bank of Commerce
All trademarks, tradenames and proprietary images are the property of their owners.