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MARY BRASWELL: Looking Back - Dec. 1, 2013

HISTORY COLUMN: A look back at classic toys

Mary Braswell

Mary Braswell

Each week Albany Herald researcher Mary Braswell looks for interesting events, places and people from the past. You can contact her at (229) 888-9371 or

Located in Rochester, N.Y., the National Toy Hall of Fame recognizes toys that have demonstrated popularity over multiple generations and thereby gained national significance in the world of play and imagination. Each year, beginning in 1998, the hall inducts additional honorees and showcases both new and historic versions of the classic icons of play. Here are just some the inductees and a bit of history about each of them.


Stonemason Charles Pajeau and partner Robert Petit dreamed up the “Thousand Wonder Toy” in the early 1910s after watching children create endless abstract shapes with sticks, pencils, and old spools of thread. Adding holes on all sides of a round wooden wheel sized for sticks included in the set, they named their creation Tinkertoy. Shop owners successfully promoted the toy with elaborate store displays. The postwar boom years of the 1950s brought color to the classic wooden toy.


Jump rope began as a boy’s activity in the 17th century among Dutch settlers. Girls began jumping rope in the 1800s even though most advice books cautioned against too much exertion. As leisure time increased over the course of the 19th century, girls took to jumping rope in increasing numbers.In the early 1940s and 1950s, jump rope became tremendously popular, and many children used jumping rope as a form of play. After all,it only required a rope. Does these rhymes ring a bell? “Cinderella dressed in yellow … and Teddy bear, Teddy bear, turn around …”


Just after World War II, six Minnesota teachers who wanted to manufacture garden tools founded Mound Metalcraft in the basement of a local schoolhouse. In 1947, they acquired a competing company and inherited a toy steam shovel in the process. The idea of making toys was born. After selling 37,000 units in the first year, the teachers abandoned garden equipment and changed the company name to “Tonka,” after nearby Lake Minnetonka. The bright yellow Mighty Dump Truck, introduced in 1965, became Tonka’s best-selling toy for the rest of the century.


Around 1760, English mapmaker John Spilsbury pasted one of his maps to a board, cut around the borders, and created the first jigsaw puzzle. As for Americans, the real heyday of puzzles emerged in the 1930s. Manufacturers mass-produced die-cut cardboard puzzles and sold them cheaply enough for most families to afford, even in the midst of the Great Depression.


The Chinese invented cardboard in the 1600s. The English played off that invention and created the first commercial cardboard box in 1817. Over the years, children have recycled them into innumerable playthings. Really large boxes can offer children great opportunities for creativity. With nothing more than a little imagination, those boxes can be transformed into forts or houses, spaceships or submarines, castles or caves. Inside a big cardboard box,anything is possible.


Toy makers at Kenner Inc. were inspired by pretzel vendors to make the Easy-Bake Oven. Anticipating parents’ concerns about safety, Kenner substituted two 100-watt light bulbs for a heating element to minimize the possibility of burned fingers. Accompanied by special cake and cookie mixes, a recipe book, utensils, and slide-thru bake pans, the oven debuted in fashionable turquoise and pale yellow. Since 1963, more than 23 million of the play ovens have sold.


The stick may be the world’s oldest toy. Children find sticks an endless source of make-believe fun. Sticks can turn into swords, magic wands, majorette batons, fishing poles, and light sabers. The Toy Hall of Fame considers the sticks the original building blocks for creative play.


Children have played with blankets for as long as can be remembered. A blanket can fill in for a king’s robe, a superhero’s cape or even a flying carpet. Thrown over a table, it forms a tent. In puppet shows, the blanket substitutes for theater curtains; for a magician, the blanket conceals the secrets of the show. Robert Louis Stevenson praised blanket play — the only play available to a sick boy confined to bed in his “The Land of Counterpane.”


Rubber toys first appeared in the late 1800s, when manufacturers made use of Charles Goodyear’s process for making rubber into shape-able material. The first rubber ducks didn’t even float: they were cast solid and intended as chew toys. By the 1940s, rubber ducks developed into the floating yellow figure with bright orange bill we recognize today. For many decades, most duck figures have been made of vinyl, but we still call them rubber ducks.

Others In the Toy Hall of Fame are alphabet blocks, Atari 2600 Game System, baby doll, ball, Barbie, bicycle, Big Wheel, Candy Land, checkers, Crayola Crayons, dollhouse, Etch-A-Sketch, Frisbee, G.I. Joe, The Game of Life, Hot Wheels, Hula Hoop, jack-in-the-box, jacks, kite, LEGO, Lincoln Logs, Lionel trains, dominoes, Duncan Y-Yo, erector set, marbles, Monopoly, Mr. Potato Head, Nintendo Game Boy, Play-Doh, playing cards, Radio Flyer wagon, Raggedy Ann and Andy, roller skates, Scrabble, Silly Putty, skateboard, Slinky, Star Wars action figures, teddy bear and View-Master.


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