The Ghosts of Christmas Past
Story by Stu Neal, Contributing Writer
For many of us, Christmases of the past are among our
fondest memories, and the toys of childhood are tangible reminders of
those golden days.
Such memories might include rising before dawn on
Christmas morning, sneaking into the living room to behold a tree
bedecked in splendor, sheltering brightly colored packages, each
containing a hidden treasure begging to be picked up, carefully shaken,
then tucked back into its original place beneath the boughs.
Later, amid torn paper and shredded boxes, there sat
that special toy, before only glimpsed in a store window, or seen
between cartoons on Saturday-morning television — a toy begged for and
dreamed of for months — a dream now come true.
Each year had a different story, a different dream.
And as generations changed, so did the toys. But regardless of your age
or gender, chances are, when you recall your early play things, a smile
will come to your face. The toys of childhood invoke pleasant memories
of a simpler time.
It was only a short span from those times to another,
when clothes, school, adolescence, cars, relationships and then families
of our own, in turn, took precedence in our lives. Those cherished toys
— once so important — lost our interest. Battle-worn with use, most were
thrown out, passed along or packed away in a box destined for a corner
in the attic or garage, to be forgotten.
And then one day, decades later, that carton is
rediscovered and opened. Memories of that happy, simpler time come
For those of us who collect old toys, the opportunity
to surround ourselves with these pleasant pieces of the past may be what
makes it such an enjoyable pastime and hobby. In today’s world, this
hobby can even be an excellent investment.
In this country, the earliest toys were usually
homemade. Mothers lovingly sewed dolls using whatever materials were at
hand. Fathers crafted rocking horses and pull-toys from wood, or made
doll houses for their daughters. Marbles, one of the most popular games
in Colonial days, were crafted from clay rolled into balls and hardened
by fire. Games such as dominoes, checkers, and jackstraws
(pick-up-sticks) were very popular and could be played by the whole
family. Yo-yos, spinning tops, and Cup & Ball were some of the early
commercially made toys available.
As our country matured and grew, so did the interests
of the young. The industrial era introduced technical wonders: sailing
ships turned to steamships; land transportation sprouted locomotives;
and muzzle loaders were replaced by repeater rifles. Those same
technologies spawned a whole new generation of toys as metal replaced
wood. Metals were easy to form or mold into almost any shape, and were
much more durable. Toys of the era included cast-iron locomotives with
moving wheels, tin boats that rolled on cast-iron wheels, and early cap
guns in cast iron.
In the late 1800s, a company called Ives
Manufacturing began producing clockworks and mechanical toys in
Bridgeport, Conn. Ives became known for producing some of the finest
examples made in this country. They were extremely expensive. Among the
most popular were key-wound mechanical figures that walked, using small
rollers under the feet. The company also brought motion to the toy
trains using the key-wound clockwork mechanisms. Today the early Ives
trains are among the most sought-after by train collectors.
Technology exploded with the arrival of the 20th
century. Horses were replaced by gas-powered vehicles. Electricity
expanded into every facet of life. Machines did much of what had
previously been done by sheer muscle. The toy world followed. Electric
motors began to replace key-wound devices to power a whole new
generation of toys.
Lionel Trains took the Ives toy-train concept to a
new level, using electricity to power the train around an actual track
that could be assembled on the floor. This became one of the most
popular toys of the time. With the trains came buildings and
accessories, allowing entire towns and layouts to be built by a young
Erector Sets are a household word for most Baby
Boomers, but they were an entirely new concept when introduced by A.C.
Gilbert in 1913. Using the sets, one could build almost anything by
connecting girders and plates with screws, including buildings and
towers (the idea was conceived by Gilbert while watching workers
building a real tower with girders and rivets) and expanding to cars,
trucks, and Ferris wheels. One version even allowed construction of a
Tinker Toys were introduced at about the same time,
and became to the younger set what Erector Sets were to older children.
Designed by Charles Pajeau in 1914, the concept was totally rejected at
the American Toy Fair that year. In response to that rejection, Pajeau
hired several children, dressed them as elves, and had them play with
the toys in a department store window in Chicago during the Christmas
season. By the next year he had sold over a million of the sets.
Another construction toy of the era, Lincoln Logs,
debuted in 1916 and went on to great success. Nearly 40 years later, in
1953, it would become the first toy ever promoted on television.
Teddy Bears, named after President Teddy Roosevelt,
were originally designed from a cartoon of a bear being saved by the
president. By 1915, they became the “must-have” toy for nearly every
child in the country. The designer of the bear, Morris Michtom, used the
profits received to start one of the most famous toy companies in the
world, the Ideal Toy Company, in 1903.
As cars and trucks became a mainstay of American
culture, the smaller versions followed. In the 1920s, Buddy L started
producing larger toy trucks and cars made of pressed steel. Kids loved
the rugged feel of a toy that could be put to work in a sand box.
Parents loved that they were nearly indestructible. Tonka Toys, Marx,
Structo and other toy manufacturers were quick to produce their own
Movies inspired many of the toys of the mid 1900s.
Walt Disney’s visions jumped from the screen to character toys,
including Mickey and Minnie Mouse. From wind-up tin toys that jumped,
rolled, and swirled, to dolls and plush toys, the variety of characters
guaranteed a steady stream of change. Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers found
their adventures in space repeated in the homes of children across
America, with space ships that sparked when rolled, and ray guns that
flashed when the trigger was pulled.
Then came the ’50s and the advent of plastics,
inexpensive batteries, and electronics. Probably no other period saw
such change in the variety of toys available, and the decreased costs of
transportation allowed toys to be imported at prices that made them
affordable. Every town had a five-and-ten-cent store, where toy soldiers
for an army could be acquired at a few cents each. New plastic model
kits allowed us to assemble the planes, tanks and jeeps in detail never
before seen ... at under a dollar each.
Battery-powered toys from Japan became all the rage,
entertaining not just kids but adults. Politically incorrect today, they
reflected a society with a humor that has been unmatched since. A
grandfather toy rocked his rocker, puffed on a pipe ... and blew real
smoke rings. A bartender figure mixed drinks in a shaker and raised the
glass to his lips ... causing his cheeks to glow red and ears to smoke.
The U.S.-based Marx, the largest toymaker of the era, was a leader in
innovative battery-powered and wind-up tin toys.
And while U.S. toymakers were making vehicles larger,
across the Atlantic a company in England called Lesney started making
them smaller; small enough to fit in a matchbox. Highly detailed to
resemble actual cars, trucks, and military vehicles, they were an
instant hit in the United States. Matchbox cars, originally offered for
around 59 cents, can now command from $20 to hundreds in their original
The ’50s also ushered in an era of fast cars.
Following suit, U.S. toymakers brought us electric-powered slot cars,
where drivers raced each other around a track and controlled the speed
with a hand-held controller. Aurora, a leader in plastic model kits, was
the most successful with the introduction of HO-scale slot cars, which
mated quite nicely with Lionel and American Flyer train layouts.
Today, the thousands of vintage toys produced have
one thing in common — somewhere, somebody collects them. The value of
the contents of that long-forgotten box in the attic might surprise.
Thanks to the Internet, a quick trip to eBay or a dealer Web site makes
determining the value of vintage toys easier than ever. Novices should
note, however, that condition, not rarity, usually dictates the value of
an old toy. Collectors seek out only the most pristine examples, and
will pay top dollar for those “unplayed-with” toys. Well-worn or damaged
toys, however rare, are often worthless to collectors.
But if you remember the day you opened it, and if it brings a smile to
your face and a story to share, who cares? Get it out of that box. Let
the grandchildren play with it. It’s the memories that are priceless.