The Evolution of Toys

You’ll never guess what early game centered on choosing virture or ruin, as historian Gail Ravitts explains how toys evolved in the U.S., and which were made right here at home.

When the British explorer Captain James Cook visited the Hawaiian Islands (which he named the Sandwich Islands after the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich) in 1778, he saw children playing with a ball and cup toy. The toy was so fascinating that Hawaiian mothers probably chided their kids for wasting time with it. “Put that thing down and go practice your surfing!”
The ball and cup toy is one of many universal toys, such as bubble pipes, jump ropes, tops, kites, rattles, hoops, balls and marbles, that for centuries were made by hand with local materials and a lot of creativity.
Some unsung genius invented that “ball and cup” toy by first fastening a cup to the top of a short stick. He then tied one end of about 15 inches of string to the ball and fastened the other end of the string to the stick. The fun began when the player tossed the tethered ball into the air and tried to catch it in the cup. Not easy! This toy was common in ancient Greece, and found in North America from the Eskimos to the Aztecs. You can buy one today on Amazon for $11.60. But first, practice your surfing!
Captain Cook was no stranger to fascinating games. In his cabin, aboard his ship, the HMS Resolution, was a game of “Four in a Row,” at which he spent so much time that it became known as “The Captain’s Mistress.” It’s also now available on Amazon for only $84.95. (The Hawaiians were not amused; they killed the famous captain with a blow to the back of his head, followed by stabbing.)
In the early 19th century, little boys imagined that sticks were horses, and little girls made dolls from corn husks or hollyhocks. Noah’s Ark toys that originated in the 18th century still were popular in the 19th. Some were very elaborate, carrying up to 100 pairs of animals, as well as Noah and his family. The ark was the most popular of the “Sunday toys” of the Puritans, whose children who were allowed to play with toys only on Sunday, and only if the toys had some moral lesson or Bible history to teach. All of these toys were made by hand, one at a time, the wooden figures of the animals carved on cold winter nights, and rag dolls lovingly sewn from scraps of gingham. There was virtually no commercial toy-making in pre-industrial America.
In the 1830s, the William S. Tower Company of South Hingham, Mass., began producing wooden toys. One of its first products, a wooden sand toy, is a rare survivor of the time. It consists of two small wooden boxes, one above the other, with a paddle wheel and the figure of a boy between the boxes. A child fills the upper box with sand, which runs out slowly through a small hole, turning the paddle wheel below, which in turn animates the jointed figure of the boy. The lower box catches the sand, which then can be poured into the upper box for another round. One hopes such a toy was for the outdoors.
The earliest board game, The Mansion of Happiness, was manufactured in 1843 – or thereabouts – by the W. S. & B. Ives Company of Salem, Mass. As games go, it was pretty stern. The object of the game was to be first to get to the center of the board, and along the way, players had to choose their paths between the virtues of honesty, justice, piety and truth, as opposed to immodesty, idleness, cruelty and perjury. Choosing the latter led to the stocks and pillory, and even prison and ruin. What a riot! It was an incredibly popular game at the time. Of course, there weren’t many others.
Starting in the 1860s, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, another unsung genius recognized that there was a market for ready-made toys and many manufacturers entered the field. The Bliss Manufacturing Company of Rhode Island was one of the earliest to mass-produce wooden toys, turning out fire engines, paddle boats, trains and doll houses, all covered with colorful and detailed lithographed paper. Ten Crandall factories in Pennsylvania and New York also produced wooden toys such as Expression Blocks, Lively Horseman and Happy Family. The Reed Company was noted for its fine lithography on wooden trains and trolley cars, and the Milton Bradley Company produced an extensive line of wooden puzzles and board games, including Mansion of Happiness, which it had purchased from Ives. The lessons of morality lived on.
Tin toys, from as early as 1840, were at first handmade from scraps in the tinsmith’s shop. By the 1860s, toy factories were turning out 40 to 50 million tin toys per factory, per year. Armies of tin soldiers marched across the parlor floors of America. Napoleon met his Waterloo, and embattled farmers defied the British redcoats at the “rude bridge.” Tin circuses, with dozens of animals, performed in the nurseries while tin firemen fought imaginary fires with their tin fire engines.
Then came animation. James Secor of Bridgeport, Colo., was a clockmaker who, in about 1860, began making toys with clockwork figures, often as mechanical tin banks. When the key was wound, the figure would drop a coin into the bank. This toy had many variations and won parental approval by encouraging thrift and saving. When tin toys were mated with clockwork windings, they offered actions that wooden toys simply couldn’t match.
At Christmastime, children in the late 19th century might receive brightly painted pull toys or tin wind-up toys of horses pulling wagons, fire engines, steamboats, animals on wheels and horses in hoops with bells that jingled as the hoop rolled. Some of these toys, such as the Swan Chariot, carried the figure of a little girl. As it was pulled along, the swan’s wings moved up and down, and bellows produced a honking sound. The classic Baby Quieter bell toy and the Daisy Bell toy also had girls as their principal figures, but generally girls were slighted by toymakers. No doll factory existed in America in the 19th century; dolls were either homemade or imported from Europe.
Not surprisingly, it was trains that really captured the imagination of boys and their dads then, even as now. The Ives Company was well known for its fine tin toy trains. Some tin trains were called “floor trains,” because there were no accompanying tracks; the child just pushed them along on the floor.
At the other extreme were trains driven by live steam. The water in the locomotive’s boiler was heated to steam by a tiny alcohol burner, propelling it like a real working train. It was popular with children because it looked so authentic, but fortunately parents soon recognized the danger of open flames fueled by alcohol. Electric trains appeared as early as 1850, but didn’t gain popularity because electricity was still considered to be a scientific curiosity – and where could you plug them in? No home had electricity yet. The clockwork train was the model that dominated the market for years.
In the 1890s, tin toys had reached their peak of popularity. Tin wasn’t very durable, so toy manufacturers turned to cast iron, which was not only more durable, but cheaper. Within 10 years, cast iron toys had captured the market and toymakers turned out incredible numbers of cap pistols, bell toys, fire engines, circus wagons, hansom carriages and trains. Frances Carpenter of New York made some of the finest cast iron toys, including the Burning Building. When a lever is pulled, two firemen climb ladders up the building’s facade to rescue a Victorian lady stranded on a second-floor balcony.
Toy companies produced a vast array of cast iron banks; by 1880, they outnumbered clay and tin banks combined. Some banks were stationary, others were semi-mechanical and some were very elaborate in their mechanism, which was activated when a coin was inserted into a slot. Hundreds of models portrayed owls, banjo players, Uncle Sam, elephants and clowns.
Not every child in the 19th century would have been able to own the elaborate toys; some of them sold for $3 or $4 apiece, at a time when $4 was a good weekly wage for many workers. But there remained the universal homemade toys.
Few families in the Victorian era escaped the loss of at least one tiny tot to infectious diseases, especially diphtheria. Eugene Field, “The Children’s Poet” of the 19th century (himself the father of eight) touched every parent’s heart with his poem, Little Boy Blue, in which he uses the powerful image of toys waiting in vain for the child who will never play with them again.
The little toy dog is covered with dust, but sturdy and staunch he stands; The little tin soldier is covered with rust, and his musket molds in his hands.

Toys in the Territory

What’s the only toy still made in the Old Northwest Territory? I believe it to be the iconic Sock Monkey Doll, fashioned from Nelson Knitting’s red heelwork socks and patented in 1955. You can make them yourself – the instructions come with the socks – or you can buy one at Midway Village Museum Center for $29.95. But that wasn’t always the case. In the 1950s, all of those baby boomers wanted toys, and area manufacturers were glad to oblige. They made trucks and trains and planes so sturdy that, after 60 years, many are still around – maybe in your attic, or in the hands of eager collectors. Here are some of them (spoiler alert: I will be making gender distinctions):
Nylint: Founded by Bernard Klint and David Nyberg in Rockford in 1937, Nylint, originally a producer of kitchen utensils, made war-related items during World War II, but post-war it converted the metal stamping facilities to make wind-up toy cars, some of which were models of actual Chrysler and Ford autos. In the ’50s, the company added high-quality construction toys such as a road graders and street sweepers, and other toys patterned after Le Tourneau and Clark Equipment. They continued to mimic Ford and Chevrolet trucks, pickups and even jalopy hot rods, and to make replicas of truck/trailer rigs for hundreds of companies. They were one of the first to enter the collectible market. By the 1970s, they produced Thomas the Tank Engine toys, but the pressed steel toy business was declining and, in 2001, Funrise Toys of California bought them out after 55 years of toy making, none of it including Betsy Wetsy dolls.
Tonka Toys: Founded in 1946 by Lynn Baker, Alvin Tesh and Avery Crounse, in Mound, Minn., Tonka first manufactured closet accessories and lawn equipment. In 1947, it purchased tooling equipment for two steel toys from Streater Industries: a steam shovel and a crane and clam, soon followed by dump trucks, wreckers, semi-trucks and box vans, but no doll buggies. For 25 years, Tonka Toys persevered; it was featured in Toys and Novelties magazine in 1956. But by 1982, production was moved to El Paso, Texas, and, in 1991, Hasbro Inc. bought it and moved it to China, where small plastic trucks have replaced the once-mighty steel Tonka brand. In 2001, the Strong National Toy Hall of Fame, in Rochester, N.Y., placed Tonka trucks in its Hall of Fame, along with Silly Putty, Slinky, Mr. Potato Head, Lincoln Logs, Barbie, the Hula Hoop and the Frisbee.
Structo Toys: “Structo Toys Makes Men of Boys” was the advertising claim of this company, founded in Freeport in 1908 as Thompson Manufacturing Company. The name changed to Structo Manufacturing in 1911. The name referred to the “inde-structo-ble” steel toys made there. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the name change, the Stephenson County Museum mounted the “largest display of Structo Toys ever under one roof” on Sept. 3, 2011. In spite of storms and rain, hundreds of former Structo employees, toy collectors and area residents toured the exhibits. Structo steel building sets were a forerunner of A. C. Gilbert’s Erector Sets. In 1917, Structo introduced roadsters, tractors and dump trucks. After 55 years of toy production, the company was sold in 1973 to a manufacturer of farm toys, Ertl, in Dyersville, Iowa. No Easy-Bake Ovens to make women of girls were among their products.
Testor Corporation: This manufacturer was founded in Rockford, around 1930, by Nils Testor, as a producer of “Crystal Clear Household Cement,” a useful product for model builders. When World War II limited access to the chemicals in his glue, Testor began producing static pinewood models of aircraft that became very popular. In February 1944, a fire at the plant caused damages of more than $200,000, but less than a year later, a new plant was built and production continued. In 1949, Testor took the next logical step in model airplane building by adding an engine. To this end, he joined with Charles Miller, president of Duromatic Products, a manufacturer of the McCoy hobby engine. In the early 1970s, Testor reluctantly added plastic models to his production. Then, in the 1980s, Testor Corporation shook up the model market (and maybe even Northrop and the Air Force) when it marketed a model of a “stealth fighter,” the F-19, and sold 700,000 of them before the military admitted there was such a plane. It more resembled the SR-71 Blackbird than the actual stealth plane, the F-117 Nighthawk, but it was Testor’s best guess.
By the 1980s, women were flying in the Air Force, so we’ll say the F-19 was a girl’s toy. That’s progress! Testor is now a brand name within Rustoleum and still manufactures some small model airplanes, as well as glues and cements in Rockford, the last of the toy industry in the Territory.