Vintage Toy Story


With the deluge of Christmas advertising upon us, it’s hard to imagine that back in the early 1900s there were very few manufactured toys.  In fact, less than a dozen are listed on an advertisement from the Brooks’ store in Deer River.  The Grandest Line of X-Mas Toys ~ Little Dolls, Big Dolls, Everything for the children…toy sheep, horns, blocks, horses, whistles, sleds, books, balls, games.” 

The limited selection prompted me to explore the history of toys that are still popular today. I have chosen eight that were created prior to 1920.

Jigsaw Puzzle (1767) ~ Surprisingly, the first jigsaw puzzle was made as an educational tool for children to learn geography. It was produced by John Spilsbury, a London engraver and mapmaker. He came up with the idea to mount a map onto hardwood and, using a fine saw, cut around the borders of each country. By the 1850s jigsaw puzzles of picturesque scenes had become entertainment.

Even during the financial downswings, puzzles were viewed as a good investment because they provided a good deal of fun for a small price. The jigsaw puzzle could be a solitary or group activity and would occupy one’s time for hours. And, of course, a jigsaw puzzle was “recyclable,” in that it could be broken up once it was completed and passed on to another family member or friend

Lionel Trains (1901) ~ Joshua Lionel Cowan, designed his first train, the Electric Express, not as a toy, but to attract window-shopping New Yorkers using the power of animated displays.  Cowan was walking through lower Manhattan when he stopped at a toy store window where he saw, among the toys, a push train. He then had the vision of it going around a circle of track without needing attention and that was the image which started the Lionel train and brought it from store windows to households.

Cowan married Cecelia Liberman in1904, and their son, Lawrence, became the company’s emblem on their boxes and in catalogs. Years later he was the president of the company.  Since its humble beginning, Lionel has sold more than 50 million train sets and today produces more than 300 miles of track each year.

Teddy Bear (1902) ~ According to, “the story behind this timeless toy goes back to 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a tied-up, defenseless black bear during a hunting trip in Mississippi. After Brooklyn shopkeeper Morris Mictom saw a political cartoon about the incident, he and his wife made a stuffed fabric ‘Teddy’s bear’ and put it in their shop window, sparking immediate customer interest.” About the same time, the Stieff family-owned toy company in Germany began making stuffed bears of its own.

Crayons (1903) ~ The (Edward) Binney and (C. Harold) Smith Company had made industrial coloring products for a long time.  It was shortly after they developed the Staonal marking crayons, that Binney, working with his wife, Alice, came up with their famous Crayola brand of crayons. Alice created the name Crayola by combining the French word for chalk, craie, with the first part of oleaginous, the oily paraffin wax used to make the crayon.

The Crayola line started in 1903 with The Rubens targeted towards artists and designed to compete with the Raphael brand of crayons from Europe.  In 1904 Crayola won the coveted Gold Medal at the St. Louis World’s Fair for their An-du-Septic dustless chalk and soon changed the packaging of all their products to the Gold Medal design which was used for over fifty years.

Erector Set (1913) ~ Alfred C. Gilbert was a talented athlete (he won a gold medal in the pole vault in the 1908 Olympics), brilliant student, and an inventor. He frequently took the train to New York City, and on one trip in 1911 he was inspired by what would be the most popular of his dozens of inventions.

Wikipedia stated that “watching out the train window as some workmen positioned and riveted the steel beams of an electrical power-line tower, Gilbert decided to create a children’s construction kit; not just a toy, but an assemblage of metal beams with evenly spaced holes for bolts to pass through, screws, bolts, pulleys, gears and eventually even engines. A British toy manufacturer, Meccano Company was then selling a similar kit, but

Gilbert’s Erector set was more realistic and had a number of technical advantages – most notably, steel beams that were not flat but bent lengthwise at a 90-degree angle, so that four of them nested side-to-side formed a very sturdy, square, hollow support beam…

…Gilbert began selling the ‘Mysto Erector Structural Steel Builder’ in 1913, backed by the first major American ad campaign for a toy.  By the time of his death in 1962, he was credited with 150 patents for the inventions that went into his products, which were really much more than just toys.”

Tinkertoy (1914) ~ Charles Pajeau, a stonemason, designed the toy after seeing children play with sticks and empty spools of thread. He partnered with Robert Pettit and Gordon Tinker and marketed a product that would allow and inspire children to use their imaginations. The sets were introduced to the public through displays in and around Chicago which included model Ferris wheels.

The cornerstone of the set is a wooden spool roughly two inches in diameter with holes drilled every 45 degrees around the perimeter and one through the center. Unlike the center, the perimeter holes do not go all the way through. Sticks of varying lengths could be inserted in the holes and umpteen three-dimensional designs created. 

One of Tinker Toy’s most distinctive features is the packaging. Initially, the mailing tube design was chosen to reduce shipping costs. Early versions of the packaging even included an address label on the tube with space for postage.

Lincoln Logs (1916) ~ John Lloyd Wright was a son of famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  John worked with his father on the design of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel.  Faced with the challenge of building a structure that could withstand the powerful earthquakes that regularly shook Japan, Frank Lloyd Wright sketched an ingenious design that relied on a system of interlocking timber beams that would allow the hotel to sway but not collapse in case of a tremor.

John and his father parted ways during this project and using the blueprint for the Imperial Hotel as a model, John created a toy construction set that consisted of notched pieces of wood that children could stack to build log cabins, forts, and other rustic buildings. The interlocking system of miniature logs could withstand rowdy play and would not topple like blocks.

Lincoln Logs came with instructions to build not only Abraham Lincoln’s Kentucky boyhood home, but a famous log structure from the pages of American literature, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Raggedy Ann (1918) ~ Raggedy Ann is a character created by American writer Johnny Gruelle in 1915 in a series of books he wrote and illustrated for young children.  Raggedy Ann was introduced to the public in the 1918 book Raggedy Ann Stories. When the doll was marketed with the book, the concept had great success. A sequel, Raggedy Andy Stories (1920), presented the character of her brother, Raggedy Andy.

So, now you know the story behind some of the toys you played with as a child, or those you might see your children, grandchildren or great grandchildren playing with this holiday season.  And remember, you’re never too old to color, hug a teddy bear or Raggedy Ann, or build with Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, or an Erector Set!

1 Comment

  1. Vickie says:

    Loinel Trains are the only toys that I haven’t played with. What a great trip down memory lane.


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