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History of Toys: Annual Antique Toy Exhibit at Clinton Academy Museum

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toy tractor

By Vanessa Pinto

Think back to your best Christmas present ever. Was it a Flexible Flyer, or Barbie’s Dream House or maybe a gigantic tin of Lincoln Logs?

The holidays have always been an exciting time for youngsters, and throughout the generations, on Christmas eve many a tot has lain awake with anticipation, wondering what will be left under the tree for them.

Though children who lived a century ago or more did not play with mass produced toys made by companies like Mattel or Milton Bradley, they still had their own magical and sentimental collection of unique tin, wooden or ceramic toys that captured the imagination on Christmas morning. Often, these durable toys would be shared by all the children in the family and then passed down to younger generations to cherish for a lifetime.

But have you ever thought about where toys and games came from in the old days? On Saturdays and Sundays until December 19, the East Hampton Historical Society is featuring “A Children’s World” its annual antique toy exhibit, allowing visitors to step into the past and see the collection of preserved toys from the Colonial and Victorian period as well toys from the 20th century up to 1960.

“We want it to look different each year, offering something new for the visitors,” explains Richard Barons, executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society and curator of the exhibit. He adds that there are new toys displayed each year, with some from past years’ exhibits making an appearance as well.

The ageless toys on view come from the historical society and other Long Island museums as well as private collectors. Many of the toys once belonged to children who lived in East Hampton and among the eclectic collection are porcelain and china dolls, games, bicycles, blocks, puzzles, a model airplane, and wooden pull toys.

Though most of the antique toys in the exhibition were made at home, Barons notes that some of the toys were made in factories or toy shops, but he adds the production run would have been extremely limited when compared to today’s numbers, with fewer than 30 of the same toy produced in some cases.

Barons explains that in the old days, toys were manufactured or created through different processes. Some were hand painted, others, like puzzle blocs and wooden trucks, had lithograph prints attached to them.

He also points out that a handmade dressing bureau that was used by children to perhaps keep doll clothes safe, would most likely have been modeled after furniture in the home. Many such miniature bureaus are, for that reason, one of a kind. The wooden bureau displayed in this exhibit was locally crafted in the early 1800s, and hand painted with decorative fixtures.

A sleigh holding an assortment of gift packages was also made locally —in East Hampton — in a carriage factory near Gay Street, adds Barons. A bicycle on display with one very large wheel and a small rear wheel, also known as penny-farthing, was almost as daring to ride as a unicycle today. Barons notes it was generally ridden by teenagers in East Hampton in days gone boy.

“Toys were especially very dear to children during the Colonial period,” says Barons. “Siblings usually shared their toys and they were passed down to younger siblings as they grew older.”

“It wasn’t until after the Civil War period that children from privileged families generally received 15 to 20 gifts at Christmas,” explains Barons who adds that children in the Victorian era received more toys because that was when they first began to be manufactured in higher numbers. By the 1880s, most toys were commercially made.

During the 19th century, girls generally had one to two dolls. Parents would purchase the head made of either china, Parian, porcelain or paper-mâché (which was more expensive), and then craft the cloth or orchid leather body and made clothes from scraps of cloth. Some porcelain dolls’ faces were treated with bisque firing, so the face did not have a shinny finish and instead resembled flesh, explains Barons. He adds that dolls made in Germany had a bisque finish to create pale faces. The dolls were preserved by being wrapped in acid free tissue paper and placed in acid free boxes.

For the boys, cast iron hook and ladder fire trucks and model airplanes were popular in the early part of the 20th century. Cast iron trucks, crafted between 1910 and 1915, were much more expensive than tin toys. Model airplanes were assembled by teens mostly during the 1920s. Wooden pull toys have always been popular for younger children.

A cat on display in the exhibit that was hand embroidered and filled with straw would be comparable to today’s stuffed animal. In 1880, the German company Steiff, which specializes in plush toys, was founded and by the early 20th century, those with a little more money to spend could purchase one of the company’s high quality teddy bears — which fans of Antiques Road Show know fetch a bundle today.

Harrods of London, England also sold high-end toys such as hand stenciled wood miniatures, painted with lead based paint.

“The manufacturers thought it was great because you could varnish it and thus it was widely used for toys,” explains Barons. “People did not know back then that lead paint was toxic.”

“A Children’s World” exhibit will be open to the public Saturdays from 10 to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 12 to 5 p.m. until Sunday, December 19 at the Clinton Academy Museum, 151 Main Street, East Hampton. For more information visit www.easthamptonhistory.org.