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.
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.
The preeminent name in flats is Ernst Heinrichsen, who founded his company in 1839. What distinguished Heinrichsen's figures from others being made at that time was, essentially, a greater variety of subjects and poses, and more detailed painting. He also produced more than his competition, inundating the market with his creations. Heinrichsen's company lasted for a century, closing its doors in 1940. Today, his figures remain the benchmark forcollectors of flats.
About the time that Heinrichsen was starting out, other toy makers in Germany began producing a thicker figure, known today as a semi-round. Though a large number of these models was produced, they were generally of poor quality. Toy soldiers were made of tin, which was then an expensive metal. Makers of the heavier semi-rounds, driven by economies and a desire to increase their profit margins, began making soldiers with tin alloys. Fine details could not be rendered as well with these alloys, and the figures were prone to bending and breakage. The result was soldiers that would not pass muster.
In Paris, amid beheadings, Bastille stormings and other revolutionary activities of 1792, a toy soldier maker named Lucotte was crafting his toy armies of lead. Outside his door very real armies were using lead in a rather different way. Some contend that Lucotte was a revolutionary of his own, having been the first to create fully-round (three dimensional) toy soldiers--a full 70 years before any other maker. Lucotte's "revolutionary" status is, however, rather widely disputed and there are no early records to confirm the 1790s as the era that saw fully-round toy soldiers come to market. It is more widely held that fully-round figures appeared in the late 19th century. The manufacturer that led the charge and ultimately conquered with fully-rounds was a firm known today simply as Heyde (pronounced "high-dee").
Not only was Heyde prolific, it was also extremely creative. Most toy soldiers of the time had pretty limited résumés: they could stand guard, shoot or march. Heyde's soldiers could have been the inspiration for the slogan "Be all that you can be." In addition to other more esoteric action poses, these figures depicted more mundane, yet essential, aspects of soldierly life, including cooking, eating and drinking, and sleeping. After all, an army must be nourished and well-rested.
With these figures, a child could create very elaborate play scenes. Subjects ranged from soldiers of ancient Egypt to knights of the Crusades, from the American Revolution to the Boer War to the First World War. Heyde's soldiers were shipped worldwide and the firm enjoyed great success until 1945, when its factory in Dresden fell victim to a real war; it was destroyed by Allied bombing.
A toy soldier name even more widely known today is Britains. While the German and French toy soldier makers of the 1800s were turning out garrison after garrison, toy makers in England were reluctant to get into the battle. Both Heyde and Mignot (a French firm that took over Lucotte's company) featured English soldiers, and they were imported by Mother England in large numbers.
The primary reason that English toy makers did not attack was an economic one. Shipping costs were high for heavy toy soldiers and it was difficult to be competitive on the continent. At least until 1893.
As the last decade of the nineteenth century unfolded, William Britain developed a casting method that revolutionized the toy soldier industry. Britain was a toy maker gifted with both creativity and engineering prowess. Many of his early toys were mechanical, driven by his unique flywheel mechanisms.
The source of his inspiration is a matter of dispute, but whatever the impetus, Britain's new casting method was genius. All toy soldiers up to that time were solid cast; many were solid lead. This made for a very heavy and costly figure. But William Britain developed a means to hollow-cast soldiers.
While traditional casting methods involved pouring lead into a two-piece mold, Britain's method resembles modern day rotational casting. Lead is poured into the mold and then quickly poured out. The lead closest to the outside of the mold sets first. The result was a highly detailed shell, half the weight of comparable figures from Europe.
As a part of Britain's marketing strategy, he limited his subject almost solely to the English military. He knew that he could not compete with the broad ranges of subjects from Heyde and Mignot, so he focused on the niche of his home market.
Britains sets grew at an almost geometric rate, up until the First World War. After the Great War, Britains began producing additional military sets, but a disillusioned public was not receptive. The First World War had in no way resembled the "noble" warfare of the past; the atrocities of twentieth century combat inspired pacifism in Britains' consumers. Picking up on that sentiment, Britains introduced a line called the Model Home Farm, complete with animals, blacksmiths, farmers and a village idiot.
The line expanded to include more civilian subjects, including circus figures, footballers, and even gnomes (if gnomes can be rightly called civilians). There were also beautiful gardens and trees.
In the late 1920s, Britains began courting the growing U.S. market with American military subjects. In the 1930s, the company created English military sets with renewed vigor for a revived home market. The Second World War had a different effect on the public than the first. Feelings of patriotism inspired renewed interest in the military. Britains responded, and even created models of topical subjects, including barrage balloons and air raid wardens.
Though the war helped rekindle interest in the company's wares, it was at a cost. Some of the Britains facilities were pressed into service to make war materiel, and damage inflicted by German bombing set the company back. In fact, Britains never regained its pre-war stature, and in 1966 it stopped production of its traditional lead soldiers. It was not until the 1980s that Britains began making traditional-style soldiers again, albeit not in lead, but in a die-cast alloy.
Most Britains collectors agree that the glory of Britains' pre-war toy soldiers is unmatched by its post-war efforts. William Hocker, a toy soldier maker in California, is inspired by pre-war Britains, and his models pay tribute to their style. His tribute to the line goes beyond appearance. One of his more elaborate sets features a figure of William Britain presenting a box of his toy soldiers to Queen Victoria.
Toy soldier shows offer the collector the best opportunity to add a piece to his or her regiment. There are many toy soldier makers from which to choose, each with its own unique style.
Rare examples of older pieces can be found at auctions. At a recent toy soldier auction at Christie's Gallery in London, items from the Britains Archives were sold. Among the pieces on the block was a 1934 Marching Scots Guardsman factory prototype, which brought an astounding $4,620. A boxed, 25-piece Bahamas Police Band set (originally made exclusively for the Bahamas export market) fetched $5,775.
This is one of the most recently developed toy categories. Using an injection-molding process done by machine, die-cast toys did not appear until the early 1930s, when other types of toys were reaching peak popularity. Originally created as toy train accessories, die-cast toys (and especially cars) would become some of the most widely collected toys of all time.
In 1933, the first die-cast toys that would come to be known as Dinky Toys appeared on the market under the name Modelled Miniatures. These were marketed by the Hornby company, which made electric toy trains, and were designed as accessories for Hornby's train line. Some of its first models were people and animal figures and nonmotorized trains. The models hit the market in 1934 as Dinky Toys and were subsequently manufactured under the auspices of Hornby's Meccano Co. at its factories in France and England.
The early Dinky Toys models were very crude by today's standards, consisting of a body shell, a pressed metal base plate (this represented the chassis) and no interior detail. Still, these early toys have a very child-like charm, and certain rare examples, like the #22 Sports Roadster from 1934, can command prices in the thousands of dollars in like-new condition.
Many models were made in O scale (1:43 to 1:48 scale) to match the trains that they were originally intended to complement. But the scales in the line varied widely. Dinky was concerned more about price points and keeping models in a similar size, rather than in correct proportion. Very likely, this was to keep raw material costs consistent and the number of retail box sizes to a minimum, a strategy that certainly helped Dinky maintain high margins.
Dinky was essentially alone in the die-cast world for almost two decades. In 1948, a company called Mettoy had a small range of models called Castoys, which it made at the urging of a large customer, Marks & Spencer. The mechanical models were too heavy to be propelled by their wind-up motors and the line stayed in Mettoy's catalog for only three years. This scarcely made a dent in the Dinky business. The first real ripple of competition came in 1949, when an upstart manufacturing firm called Lesney Products introduced the first small-scale die-cast toy in a line that would become synonymous with die-cast: Matchbox.
Lesney's Matchbox line of models was well established by 1952, and the toys were much smaller and less expensive than Dinky's. In spite of these advantages (and in spite of their high quality castings), shop owners were reluctant to carry the line. They compared the small Matchbox to the much larger Dinky models and concluded that the Lesney products were inferior. Test marketing of the toys proved that conclusion wrong. Children loved them.
If the appearance of Matchbox was a ripple, that of Corgi was a tidal wave. Dinky had little to fear from Matchbox. Even though the two were competing for dollars (or pounds), their size difference put them in very indirect competition for market share. Corgi, on the other hand, was a line created to attack Dinky directly. The fierce one-upmanship that followed between these two major lines would cause some of the most significant product innovations seen in the toy industry in this century.
Launched in 1956, Corgi analyzed its plan of attack carefully. It knew that the Dinky toys were loved by children around the world. A love like that could not be overcome by merely imitating its competitor. It had to be better.
The first thing Corgi did was to establish a more consistent scale. The cars it made ranged from 1:44 to 1:48 scale, a difference nearly imperceptible to the eye; trucks were made in 1:56 to maintain reasonable retail prices. After all, what good is authenticity if you have a warehouse full of dead--but correctly proportioned--inventory?
Deciding on a scale was important, but Corgi needed an angle strong enough to woo loyal Dinky fans. Dinky models were little more than a hollow shell with wheels. The Corgi marketing gurus immediately identified a deceptively simple improvement: add windows!
"The Ones With Windows" became Corgi's slogan and realism was it rally cry. Each subsequent model was progressively more realistic. Toy car features that today are taken for granted were pioneer territory in the early days of Corgi. Many of those features are a direct result of the Corgi/Dinky competition.
Here is an abbreviated list of "Corgi Firsts," as they were called by marketing mavens, all of which are collector's prizes:
1958--The first nonconvertible car with a detailed interior (seats, dash, steering wheel) was the #211 Studebaker Golden Hawk.
1959--The Renault Floride #222 combined a detailed interior with spring suspension. These would become standard features on Corgi models.
1961--The #224 Bentley Continental had three "firsts": Rhinestone headlights and taillights, steering, and opening trunk with removable spare.
1963--A VW Van featured Trans-o-Lite, a crude form of fiber optics that gave the model "working" headlights.
Also in 1963, the #241 Chrysler Ghia had the most features of any die-cast model of its day: opening doors, trunk, hood; detailed engine; plated bumpers; jeweled headlights; and tip-up seats. A quick look in the toy car aisle at any major toy store today will show the majority with opening doors, detailed engines and more. They owe it all to this revolutionary model that sold in excess of 1,700,000 pieces.
Corgi kept outdoing itself. Every model year brought more innovations: removable luggage in the trunk, working windshield wipers, full steering. In 1965 came the die-cast sensation to end all, the model that started yet another revolution: the James Bond Aston Martin DB5 #261.
More than 4,000,000 pieces of this classic were sold and it is very likely that you had one. Modeled after Bond's car in the movie Goldfinger, it was outfitted with marvelous gadgets, and all but two (the oil slick and smoke screen) were engineered into the Corgi toy, much to the credit of Corgi's design team. The pop-out machine guns and rear shield, the tire slashers, rotating license plates, and the infamous working ejector seat were toyland triumphs. And not just for die-cast; this was a toy like none before it. In spite of the large numbers of models sold, a boxed example of this model in mint condition today can run in excess of $500.
From that point on, the die-cast business was forever changed. Not only were Corgi and Dinky battling for technical superiority; they were fighting for the top entertainment licenses as well. Dinky scored some major coups, landing contracts with "Thunderbirds," a popular 1960s children's TV series from Britain, "Space: 1999," a British science fiction series, and the hugely popular "Star Trek" series.
But in most cases Corgi won, possibly due to the stunning success of the Aston Martin. Ultimately, the licensing frenzy would dilute the Corgi line's main strength, which was its cars. Although licensed products were crucial to Corgi's rise in the mid 1960s, overdependence on them played a role in the company's demise in 1983. The company has undergone a series of deaths and rebirths since that year, most recently being sold by giant Mattel to Corgi management this year.
Corgi's line had begun to weaken in the late 1960s with its debut of Whizzwheels. Corgi introduced this unrealistic style of wheel to compete with the growing success of a line called Hot Wheels in America. Dinky also bowed to the pressure, introducing its own version of fast-rolling cars. Dinky died as well, in the 1970s. Matchbox bought the rights to the Dinky name.
Due to these trendy changes, the era of truly classic models came to an end, and with it, the Golden Age of Corgi. Generally recognized as 1959 to 1969, all of Corgi's greatest achievements can be found in this 10-year period.
Today, there are numerous die-cast companies making models ranging in scale from 1:8 to 1:64, with subjects ranging from the exotic to the commonplace. Of all the modern toy collectibles, die-cast is probably one of the easiest to get into. Classic, antique models can still be purchased at reasonable prices, and the variety of contemporary makers presents the collector with a seemingly endless array of models from which to choose. The selection is so vast, in fact, the new collector can become overwhelmed unless a specialty is chosen.
Die-cast shows are common across the country and are the best place to find a wide selection of vintage die-cast models. National toy collector publications list shows all around the United States and Canada.
When we were kids, our toys spoke volumes about us. They still do. As adults, toy collecting suggests that there is a part of us, beneath our professional exteriors, that never quite grew up. But with all of the pressures of the "real world," maybe that isn't such a bad thing. Perhaps our toys give us a brief respite from adult responsibilities, renewing the kid in all of us.
Steven K. Ryan is a freelance toy author and columnist.
A Toy Collector's Guide
Henry Kurtz Ltd.
163 Amsterdam Ave., Suite 136
New York, New York 10023
The Art of the Toy Soldier
by Henry I. Kurtz and Burtt R. Ehrlich (1987, Abbeville Press, New York328 pages, $75)
A complete history of toy soldiers.
by Dr. Edward Force (1988, Schiffer Publishing, West Chester, Pennsylvania 224 pages, $18)
A detailed catalog of Dinky Toys with price guide.
The Great Book of Corgi
by Marcel R. Van Cleemput (1989, New Cavendish Books, London 512 pages, $75)
The most thorough coverage of Corgi history.
Corgi Collector Club
14 Industrial Rd.
Pequannock, New Jersey 07440 (quarterly newsletter)
William Britain Collectors Club, c/o RDP Publications
PO Box 1946
Halesowen, West Midlands BG3 3TS England
Perelman Antique Toy Museum
The Sterling Collection, Stone Castle
21027 Crossroads Circle
Waukesha, Wisconsin 53187
Issues feature detailed articles on toys and collecting. Show listings each month. Kalmbach also offers a broad selection of specialty collector reference books, a list of which can be obtained by writing to them.
Old Toy Soldier Newsletter
209 North Lombard
Oak Park, Illinois 60302
Issues feature in-depth articles about toy soldiers; numerous dealer advertisements. Also will include inserts about special shows and auctions. Complete show listings each month.
Toy Collector and Price Guide
700 East State St.
Iola, Wisconsin 54990
Issues feature articles on toys and collecting; numerous dealer advertisements. Complete national show listings each issue.
It is best for the collector to consult specialty publications for current listings of shows. The most general toy show listings are found in the Toy Collector; specific shows are listed in more specific publications. Toy shows can range in size from fewer than 20 dealers to hundreds. To avoid wasting a trip for an undersized show, it is best to contact the show promoter in advance to determine the number of dealers.