THE JOY OF CHRISTMAS TOYS
by Mel Robertson
ROUND ABOUT SEPTEMBER in
very year of the 1920s, children would hear their parents say, "Well it looks like the year has made a turn", or some other expression involving the word "turn". We didn't know exactly what the expression meant but we knew that when the year had made a "turn" we had begun to hasten down the road that led to Christmas. It was a fairly simple road with clearly-marked milestones - the School Fair, Burford Fair, Halloween, the School Christmas Concert, the Sunday School Christmas Concert, the pre-Christmas train trip to Brantford, the hike to Parnell's woods for a Christmas tree and finally the mystery of Christmas Eve. Each of these events was clearly marked in our minds for they were not encumbered with electronic information, floppy discs and computer bytes, and our eyes were not assailed by TV characters such as the Simpsons or the Ninja Turtles teaching us how to insult our parents or assault our friends. No - all our concentration was on what toys we would find under the Tree in the early shadows of .Christmas morning.
What were the toys of the 1920s and where does one find information about them? Well, there is an excellent book on this subject and it is Joseph Schroeder Jr.'s "The Wonderful World of Toys, Games and Dolls 1860 -1920". This book is based on the Christmas advertisements put out by America's leading department stores. I chose this book as the basis for my article for it includes the Christmas offerings of two large American stores that had a Bur-ford connection: Marshall-Fields of Chicago and Butler Brothers (City Products Corp.) of Minneapolis. Both of these large corporations had former Bur-ford men as executives - my uncles Will Robertson and Alex Robertson at Marshall-Fields and P. Bently Neff at Butler Brothers. Other large stores in the book include Sears-Roebuck and Montgomery-Ward.
Writing about toys may seem to be a simple thing for they were simple things. However a number of complex social factors enter into any such discussion. One of the most important factors was the fact that in the 1920s parents felt that children should be given toys only on their birthday and at Christmas. Consequently, apart from stores such as Woolworths, toy departments were maintained only during the month of December. This applied not only to Burford stores but also to the large Brantford department stores such as the Arcade and Ogilvie-Lochead. It was possible, of course, to find toy departments in London, Hamilton or Toronto but in the 1920s trips to such far-off places were not undertaken without considerable forethought. Another major factor was the merchandising practice of the 1920s which confined Christmas celebrations to the month of December. There were no September Santa Glaus parades and no electronic Santa Clauses in malls telling children to have their parents buy the $125 atom-splitting kit or the $1,200 computer. The only time kids saw a Santa Claus was at the December Sunday School concert and there everyone knew that the roly-poly figure was really the well-padded Sunday School Superintendent, Wilfred Eddy, in disguise. Yet another factor was that, in the absence of TV and radio, 1920s mothers and "aunts" read Christmas stories to children and thus they developed a vivid imagination about what could happen on Christmas Eve. All of this was not heathen
fantasy for we received information both at Sunday School and at home about the real reason for celebrating Christmas - the birth of the Holy Child and the great love shown to us by that event. Indeed when we left the Sunday School Christmas Concert we always searched the heavens for the Christmas Star and when we passed the old Public School on a wintry December night we expected to see the shepherds and the heavenly Choir somewhere off among the snow-banks in "the Big Field". All this, combined with story-book fantasy, made Christmas Eve a time never to be forgotten by those children of long ago.
The choice of toys in the 1920s was also dominated by a number of social factors, chief of which was the severe sexual segregation that was practiced at school and church with separate school entrances, separate Sunday School classes, separate school playgrounds, etc. Role models were expected to be practiced with boys doing men's jobs and girls doing women's jobs. The 1920s society was a male-dominated one in which, apart from nursing and teaching, girls had few opportunities for careers. Consequently, there was great emphasis on "homemaking" - things such as toy scrub boards at 39 cents, toy washing machines at 47 cents, to}' ironing oSa'f3s at 39 cents, toy bassinets at 95 cents, toy rolling pins, toy dishes with plaster fried eggs on them, toy sewing machines at $2.75 and toy doll carriages. On the other hand, boys were expected to be "manly": a stiff Victorian macho word to describe male domination, male "duties" and male "rights", a super-puritanical attitude toward "The Sabbath" (never Sunday), a feeling that a man should dominate his wife, his children and his dogs, a determination to ignore the facts of life, a contempt for education and reading and a propensity to punch any man in the nose who did not conform to these principles. Consequently, boys' toys included many things that reinforced these attitudes. Chief among these were the many toy replicas of weapons and, although World War I had just ended and people were sickened with the slaughter that had taken place, Christmas toy lists in 1920 were dominated by toy rifles at 29 cents, toy revolvers with flints that shot sparks at 27 cents, toy swords at 90 cents, toy cannon at 20 cents, toy machine guns at $2.98, toy bayonets, toy battleships, toy drums, toy bugles, etc. One large store even went so far as to advertise toy rifles at $1.54 as "just the thing to get boys started on brigade training" (whatever that meant).
This emphasis on giving war toys to little boys was strange, for during the Great War politicians and clergy had urged people to send their sons to fight saying that their death would ensure that there would never be another war. "Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world" was the Biblical passage most quoted. However, this pious declaration apparently did not get through to the toy manufacturers who, in 1920, were mostly German. We note the number of wars that have taken place since 1914-18 and have to wonder about the sincerity of the politicians and clergy noted above and the frame of mind that induces toy manufacturers to flood the 1990s Christmas markets with weapons of mass destruction.
Of almost equal importance to war toys in the 1920 Christmas ads were the metal construction sets such as Meccano, Erector, Gilbert and Structomode. These were
similar in many ways as they consisted of various types of perforated metal things that could be bolted together with enclosed nuts and bolts to make a variety of models noted in the accompanying instruction book. These toys came in progressive sets so that a boy could advance to more complicated construction without an undue outlay of cash. The top sets of these toys included electric motors. Of these toys the most popular was Meccano which is still built. Every Burford boy I know had one. Meccano also issued a little magazine called (you guessed it) "Meccano Magazine" which ran articles about airplanes, ships, trains, etc. I had a Meccano set, as did my son, and in a book-case in a room at my home that we still call "Peter's Room" is a long selection of "Meccano Magazines" waiting, I suppose, for some little boy, later on, to read them.
The possession of mechanical things such as electric motors and steam engines was the goal of most 1920s boys and electric motors were frequently offered as inducements to buy subscriptions to boys' magazines. I fell for this scam and, whereas I got the magazine, I also got a note saving that the company which made the free electric motors had gone out of business and, like a number of my friends, I never got the confounded motor.
Not all construction sets were made for boys as there was one that was designed for girls. It consisted of wooden strips of various lengths which, when fitted together, would make "a comfy house for your dolls". My cousin Walter brought one of these sets for my sister when he returned from A.E.F. service in the Great War. He dumped the whole thing on our kitchen table but, after a few attempts to build a "comfy doll house", he threw down the pieces and said, "Well, Emilie, I sure picked a prune for you". He returned to the States. His frustration must have been monumental for I haven't seen him since.
One operating toy that was much desired in the 1920s was the steam engine which was a miniature model of the big steam engines that, in the pre-electric age, powered most factories. You filled the little boiler with water, checked the safety valve and lit the alcohol lamp. Then when steam was up the little wheel revolved and the whistle blew. Steam engines were a dangerous toy, for a child could be scalded by the hot water, the boiler could explode if the safety valve stuck and the wood alcohol was poisonous. I had a steam engine but was never allowed to run it unless my father was present with a bucket of water. Steam engines came in many sizes and prices ranged from 50 cents to $2.50.
The acme of all Christmas toys for boys was the electric train made by Lionel, Hornby or Ives. However, since these cost about $20 only the sons of the well-to-do got them. The rest of us had to be content with wind up trains that cost from $1.50 to $3.75 and consisted of an engine and three cars on a circular track.
One of the most popular and endurable sets of toys were the wooden trains, wagons and doll beds manufactured by Vetcraft, a Great War veterans' company. These toys were so well built that they could withstand the efforts of the most destructive children. Among the Vetcraft toys was Noah's Ark which included all the animals plus Noah and his wife. These were not made from the Biblical "gofer wood" but we Sunday School-trained kids could overlook that omission.
Among veteran-made toys were little boxes with celluloid covers in which little metal balls had to be maneuvered into a little cage. These usually depicted some World War event such as getting men into a dug-out. One was called "Capture the Cootie" and kids spent hours with this toy not realizing that the term "Capture the Cootie" was the slang expression soldiers used to describe the way they got rid of the lice that infested them.
In the gender-conscious 1920s little girls had a wide choice of dolls made from cloth, leather, bisque or rubber. The most expensive were made of "French Kid" that gave the doll an almost human touch. Also highly prized were "character dolls" with moving eyes, china heads, and moveable joints. These dolls were very sophisticated and did not say "Ma Ma" when bent over. Neither did they say "Bonjour" or "Antidisestablishmentarianism" or make the
anti-feminist mathematical remarks now attributed to Barbie. No, they were just real "cool" and any little girl who possessed such a doll felt that she was akin to such movie stars as Thehna Talmage or Clara Bow. Character dolls ranged in price from $9.45 for a 6 Ib. doll with real hair, "glass-covered body," sparkling teeth and fancy underwear, to $1.98 for a 1 1/2 Ib. doll with a mohair wig and painted features. Non-character dolls included the all-bisque "Kewpie" doll which was popular because such dolls were given as prizes by sideshows at Burford Fair.
The most unusual doll offered at Christmas was the "Eva-Topsy" doll which was based on two little girls in the great anti-slavery book "Uncle Tom's Cabin". This was a double-ended doll with Eva's head and arms at one end and those of "Topsy" at the other. The doll had a long skirt and by manipulating it a little girl could have either "Eva" or "Topsy." These dolls were popular in 1920s Burford for many of the traveling shows that infested the Barnea Hall put on "Uncle Tom's Cabin" complete with bloodhounds, Simon Legree and his whip and boxes painted like the ice over which the heroine fled. I dare say that the "politically correct" bigots of 1992 would condemn such a doll but I think that it represented a simple way to teach inter-racial understanding.
Speaking of "political correctness", it may be interesting to note that whereas "politically correct" people in the 1990s delight in asserting that the racial bias they attribute to older people is based on the "Minstrel Show" type of toys we played with, none of the large stores in Schroeder's book displayed any such toys after 1904.
The major Christmas toy for little girls in the 1920s was the doll carriage that ranged in size and price from $14.98 for a wicker one with corduroy lining to $3.98 for a wooden-sided contraption without any lining. These prices may seem small in 1992 but since many 1920s men were only making $15 a week the purchase of a doll carriage put a big dent in pocket books. However, since every little girl wanted a doll carriage parents skimped on other things in order to (jet one. Mv sister was fortunate in having a wicker carriage due to the fact that my father had access to wholesale prices. She took great pride in this carriage, but the first day she took it out some boy stole one of the wheels. We got a replacement but Emilie would never say who took the wheel. This handsome carriage still exists in my house as a remembrance of a little girl and young lady who died too soon.
In looking over 1992 toys for grandsons it is noted that many are battery-operated. This did not apply in the 1920s for the smallest storage battery was too large for most toys. There was, however, a certain awe about electric batteries and little boys longed for a flashlight at Christmas. These ranged in size from a two-battery thing that gave a dull glow to a monstrous 5 battery spot-light that would cast its all-revealing beam over 500 feet. Flashlights were an object for bragging among 1920s boys in much the same way as 1990s boys brag about their electronic devices. Flashlights in the 1920s were expensive and kids whose parents could not afford one were content with little candle lanterns. These lasted much longer than flashlight batteries and were the lights that guided our feet when we made our after-dark skating trips to the "Dead Pond" north of Burford.
Sleighs of various types were another Christmas gift in the 1920s, but since they formed an important part of 1920s childhood I will make them the subject of a separate article similar to the coaster wagons I wrote about a few years ago.
So these were a few of the toys that appeared under the Christmas tree in the 1920s. There were many others, of course, and I have not touched upon the cast-iron toys, the penny toys and the home-made toys. Where are they now? Well, many were consumed in use but others remain as cherished antiques worth many times their original price. Indeed, they have now become too valuable for grandchildren to play with.
They represent a different time and a different set of values, but let us hope that they still represent the love with which they were given and the joy with which they were received.