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The Way We Were

Toys May Be Just Childhood Memories, But They Can Also Be Valuable Collectibles
Steven K. Ryan
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

Think back. Try to remember a birthday back in your childhood. Try to remember wanting a particular toy with a passion that burned like the sun-baked chrome of your Schwinn. You saw it in the store, you dreamed about it, it became a minor obsession.

Or maybe a major obsession.

Passion for toys does not necessarily subside as one grows older. In fact, it can grow more intense. When we were children, our toys helped define who we were and who we wanted to be. As adults, those same toys can remind us who we were and maybe even recapture some of the innocence. After all, some of us may still want to be astronauts.

The hobby of toy collecting is a recent phenomenon, one that has soared in popularity in the past 20 years. There has been a significant increase in demand for antique toys of all types: from metal toys to die-cast to action figures. More and more adults (especially men) are rediscovering their love of toys, often by accident.

Old playthings tend to have an alluring effect. They can trigger happy memories and a smile of recognition. Perhaps in an attempt to hold onto that peaceful feeling, a person buys the toy. A single piece of once-upon-a-time happiness often leads to another, and thus a collector is born.

Where did toys come from, and why do they seem to have such mythical powers? A quick look at toy history will help to illustrate where toys fit into our contemporary world and why collectors adore them.

No images of Geoffrey the Giraffe (the Toys "R" Us mascot) have been found in Thebes or at Giza. But toy-like objects have been found in Egyptian tombs. These objects include dolls, animal figures, boats, pull-toys and miniature armies. It is generally believed that these were objects to accompany the dead to the afterlife. Were they portable reminders of the living world? Were they symbolic talismans?

Or were they something for the dead person to play with?

In the collection of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art is an animated ivory toy dog that is dated to the 18th Dynasty of Egypt (1570-1342 B.C.). The jaws of this graceful canine are operated by moving a rod. The animation feature (albeit crude) of this remarkable piece would suggest that this is a toy for toy's sake.

Although there is abundant evidence of toys in antiquity, it is difficult to know exactly what value the societies placed on toys. Roman and Grecian urns dating before Christ show scenes of children playing with balls, hoops and even hobby horses, and that evidence would suggest that play was not only tolerated, but encouraged.

But encouraged only to a point. Documents show that once Roman and Greek children reached puberty, they offered toys to the shrine of a particular god or goddess. It seems this was a systematic ritual to put childhood behind and begin an adult life. The closest modern equivalent would be the garage sale, when mom liquidates all toy assets without prior consultation.

It took a long time for toys to grow up, so to speak. It was not until the 16th century that a toy "industry" developed, in Nürnburg, Germany. This birthplace of toys as we know them is in Bavaria, not far from the old East-West border. Nürnburg was an ideal location because major European trade routes traversed the area.

The toy-making business was literally a cottage industry, consisting of local artisans crafting items for agents who sold the toys to merchants in Nürnburg. One major toy distributor there, Georg Bestelmeier, listed thousands of items. His catalogs offered games, tinplate, tin soldiers, dolls and paper toys like games and miniature buildings.

Common materials for these early toys were wood, paper or cardboard, and leather. Tinplate, lead and even silver were used in limited quantities. Since wood was also used for everything from dwellings to bridges, deforestation led to the near-extinction of wooden toys. In the 1840s, new technologies made it possible for German toymakers to craft with metal in large numbers; cast iron and, moreover, litho-printed tinplate became the materials of choice. It was not until the late 1950s and early 1960s that the next toy materials revolution was felt with the perfection and profusion of thermoplastics.

Since collecting rare ancient toys would involve hundreds of millions of dollars or dramatic museum burglaries, the toys most sought by today's collectors are generally those dating from the mid-1800s to the present.

Because toys are a reflection of the real world, there is a toy collectible for nearly every human endeavor and interest. Whether you like cycles, cigars, or circuses, there are toys that reflect that interest. Here are a few general categories to muse upon and be inspired by, along with some specific histories:

Mechanical and Metal Toys

A mechanical toy can be as simple as a rubber band-powered plane or as complex as a steam-driven sawmill. While early mechanical toys were made with a variety of raw materials, later toys used litho-printed tinplate. These examples are among the most collected and most readily available mechanicals.

Hero of Alexandria is one of the earliest known mechanical toy makers. In the second century B.C., this brilliant scientist invented entertaining devices to illustrate physical laws. One such toy was an ornate altar with two figures on each side; there was an empty chamber below the altar and a reservoir of water below that, in the base. When a fire was lit on the altar, air pressure in the chamber expanded, forcing the water into the movable arms of the figures. When the water filled the appendages, the arms lowered, dousing the flames as water poured from containers in the figures' hands.

While Hero's toys did not survive antiquity, his records of them did; at least indirectly. Historians and authors have cataloged diagrams of the toys attributed to him. These records provided inspiration in the creation of modern mechanical toys; in fact, a nineteenth century French scientist recreated some of Hero's devices using 300-year-old diagrams. Perhaps by coincidence, or perhaps due to the resurrection of these super Heros, the nineteenth century saw the popularization of mechanical toys. They ranged from simple individual figures to complex scenes.

For the mechanical toy makers of the mid- to late-nineteenth century, tin was a favored material because it was easy to work with. It was not, however, always easy to come by. In France, tin for toys often came from trash heaps. Predecessors of later Earth Day recyclers scoured the streets of Paris for any type of usable scrap they could find, including discarded tin cans.

Literature records vivid descriptions of the conditions under which these people worked; "disgusting" may not be a strong enough adjective. Imagine the smell of molten metal combined with the stench of rotten food on a hot July afternoon. But such was their livelihood, selling their reclaimed tin to toy makers and other artisans.

Mechanical and metal toy making was a steady business in England, France and America, but the industry was exploding in Nürnburg, Germany. Records are sketchy, but roughly 200 to 250 toy makers specializing in metal toys were based in Nürnburg in the early 1800s. Many of these toy makers were families who worked out of their homes, using very simple methods.

Most of these cottage industry toys were made of tin, pressed by hand and then painted. They were sold to merchants or distributors in Nürnburg, many of whom made substantial profits off low-priced homemade merchandise. While these early manufacturers were, indeed, pioneers, the major toy makers in this field did not appear until the latter part of the century. These are the ones whose toys are among the most desirable today (the earlier toys were generally of lower quality). Some of these famous (and collectible) names include Ives (America), Britains (England), Martin (France) and Lehmann (Germany).

In 1881, Ernst Paul Lehmann opened a toy factory in Brandenburg, Germany. The name today is nearly synonymous with some of the finest metal and mechanical toys ever made. Many of Lehmann's toys feature key-wound or flywheel mechanisms to set them in motion. His inspiration for the flywheel came from one of his contemporaries in England, William Britain. Britain created numerous toys with flywheel action and, in fact, perfected it. In spite of his unique flywheel technology, the Englishman would become better known for his toy soldiers, as will be illustrated shortly.

In 1893, Lehmann rose to dominate the metal toy market all over the world. More than 90 percent of Lehmann's production was for export, and his high-quality products were in great demand around the globe. At least until the First World War.

At that time, the political climates in England, France and America brought disfavor upon anything German. With the majority of its export market gone, Lehmann's business was limited to almost 100 percent domestic distribution. The company managed to survive the war, and during the 1920s and 1930s, Lehmann continued to thrive, his staff growing to almost 800 workers.

But Lehmann's death in 1934 and major production problems caused by the diverting of sheet metal for war materiel forced the company into a downturn. Any hope of another postwar comeback disappeared in 1949 when the Soviets confiscated the factory.

An interesting sidelight: During the Second World War, a metal toy maker called Paya in Spain picked up the slack in the metal toy market. England, France, Germany and America were using sheet metal for essential defense work. Spain did not have this problem. These Spanish models are not as desirable today as are those from Germany, principally due to their lack of pedigree. Even so, Paya reissued its metal toys in numbered, limited editions in the mid-1980s. The printing on the metal is colorful and the models are fine collectibles in their own right.

It is worth noting that American manufacturer Ives & Co. made a mechanical toy depicting Gen. Ulysses S. Grant sitting comfortably in a chair, legs crossed, with what appears to be a large pyramid cigar in his hand. When wound up, the general puffs contentedly. This cigar-friendly toy dates from the 1870s.

While more common metal and mechanical toys from the twentieth century are readily available at toy shows, estate sales and auctions, rare examples and those from the nineteenth century are more likely found through private dealers and world-class auction houses like Sotheby's, Christie's, and Phillips. Recent auctions of early toys included pieces of the Malcolm Forbes Collection and the Britains Archive. Both auctions achieved record sales figures for a number of rare pieces. For example, a 38-inch-long 1920s Märklin tin ocean liner model, Norddeutscher Lloyd Bremen, from the Forbes collection sold for a staggering $26,450.

Toy Soldiers

Miniature armies have been popular playthings among boys for over 100 years. Now mostly an adult collectible, toy soldiers have a history as rich and monumental as the armies they resemble. The continued popularity of toy soldiers as a collectible is a tribute to their simplicity and charm.

Small armies have been found in the pyramids of Egypt, and early ancestors of the modern toy soldier were made by religious trinket makers who discovered a market for secular figures, beyond their standard lines of saints, apostles and creches. But it is generally accepted that the first toy soldiers as we know them today originated in Germany.

The first commercially marketed miniature tin armies consisted of recruits that were two-dimensional, roughly one millimeter thick; today they are called "flats." They consist of a base and, as the modern moniker implies, the legs, arms and body are on the same plane. Their body positions resembled those of humans depicted in Egyptian art.


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