Children have played with toy trains since the earliest days of steam travel. During the 19th century, toy trains were made from cast iron and wood and children pushed or pulled them across the floor. By the turn of the century, trains were motorized and running on metal tracks. Toy companies such as Ives, American Flyer, and Marx all vied to control the toy train market. In 1924, Lionel Corporation captured the number spot, and by the 1950s Lionel had solidified their place as America’s most recognized name in toy train manufacturing.
Companies in the United States have used promotional items, or premiums, to sell their products since the late 1700s. However, Kellogg’s popularized the technique in the early 1900s. During the 1930s and 40s, premiums were closely associated with popular radio programs such as the Lone Ranger and Little Orphan Annie. Later premiums capitalized on popular movies and TV shows. For generations, children have waited impatiently for the mail to arrive with their new decoder ring, baking soda powered Frogmen, or nuclear powered submarine – with real diving action.
Toys soldiers have been played with since the time of the Pharaohs, but remained a toy for the wealthy until a new lead casting process revolutionized their production in the 19th century. In the 1930s, Maurice Manoil and his brother Jack began manufacturing lead soldiers out of their Manhattan factory. The pair soon moved their company to Waverly, New York, where they became the second largest producer of lead figures in the United States. The Manoil Manufacturing Co. also produced a number of different lead farm and western themed figurines, as well as die cast automobiles.
In 1866, Charles Martin Crandall began making toys at his furniture factory in Montrose Pennsylvania. Crandall’s first toy was a set of toy building blocks that utilized a new system of interlocking tongues and grooves. He would use this interlocking system in a number of other wood toys. In 1889, at his new factory in Waverly New York, Crandall invented what would become his most popular toy – “Pigs in Clover.” The ball in a maze puzzle game swept the nation and even brought a session of Congress to a standstill. Ultimately, Pigs in Clover sold over a million units, a record number for its time.
In the 1860s, Joel Ellis of Springfield Vermont designed a new toy called “Log Cabin Playhouse.” Ellis’ construction set utilized a system of interlocking logs that many children today might recognize. Almost fifty years later, in 1916, John Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright, immortalized this style of toy when he began marketing and selling his own version- which he called Lincoln Logs. Released around the same time as Tinker Toys and Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs continued a long tradition of constructions toys. Today distributed by K’nex, Lincoln Logs continue to be enjoyed by generations of children.
In the 1950s, Louis Marx and Company began producing elaborate plastic playsets.
Marx capitalized on the popularity of westerns with their “Fort Apache” and “Roy Rogers,” series. While other Marx playsets were inspired by historical events or popular movies. Marx highly detailed and affordable playsets set the new standard that all later playsets would follow. Variations of Marx style playsets continue to be popular among toy manufacturers today.
During the 1950s, the western was at the height of its popularity, and American toy manufactures moved to capitalize on this trend. Hartland Plastics Co. began producing cowboy figurines in 1953. Hartland modeled many of their figures after the popular TV and movie stars of the time – including James Arness, Gail Davis, and of course Roy Rogers with his faithful horse Trigger. The arrival of the space age in the 1960s, brought about the decline of interest in westerns and an end to Hartland’s western Line.
Just three weeks before Christmas, on December 7th 1941, America was violently thrust in to the Second World War. When war rationing of metals, rubber and other products went into effect toy manufactures were forced to find other materials to build their instruments of play. Glass toys, often filled with candy, became a popular item. Many of the toys where molded into the shapes of tanks and planes that America’s children were quickly becoming very familiar with. One of the most popular series of toys released during the war where called “build-a-sets”, made completely out of cardboard.
In 1930 Helen Schelle, who operated the Penny Walker Toy Shop in downtown Binghamton, joined forces with with two other entrepreneurs and started making wooden toys for pre-school aged children. They called it the Fisher-Price Toy Company and opened a manufacturing facility in East Aurora New York, outside Buffalo. In 1932, they introduced a delightful wind-up toy called “Puppy Back-up” which became an instant best seller. Many other hits would follow including the immensely popular “Snoopy Sniffer” pull toy in 1938. By the early 1960s, Fisher-price toys where known worldwide especially their “Little people” line, which included one of the most popular toys in the entire industry, the “Safety School Bus”.
In 1939, a new instrument for displaying photographs was introduced to the world. Viewing black and white stereographic images had been around for decades, but inventor William Gruber and his partners found a unique way to utilize a newly introduced color slide film process called Kodachrome.
Mounting 7 pairs of pictures on a single disk, allowing two slides to be viewed simultaneously, one with each eye, created the illusion of three-dimensional depth perception. They called it the View-Master and rolled it out at the Worlds Fair in New York. It became an instant sensation.