01 January 2010
Andrew Ralston looks at a selection of old and new toys from the USA with a seasonal connection. ...
It’s remarkable how many popular Christmas traditions are American in origin. Just think of Clement Clark Moore’s poem ‘Twas the Night before Christmas’, written in 1822 and still read to children on Christmas Eve, or Bing Crosby’s evergreen hit ‘White Christmas’ from 1942. Even our image of what Santa Claus looks like was, to a considerable extent, shaped by artist Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him in 1930s Coca Cola advertisements.
As the notion of a consumer society developed sooner in the United States than on this side of the Atlantic, toys have always played a big role in American Christmas celebrations. This was especially true in the 1940s and 1950s when major department stores and mail order houses used to issue comprehensive seasonal catalogues depicting vast numbers of toys for children to put on their Christmas lists. Catalogues issued by New York toy retailer FAO Schwartz, mail order giant Montgomery Ward or the Sears Roebuck retail empire were packed with pictures of tinplate and plastic toys by Marx, metal vehicles from Hubley and Tootsietoy, heavy duty outdoor steel vehicles by Nylint, Structo and Tonka, and many other famous brands.
Woolworth’s catalogue – or catalog – for 1953 is a typical publication of this kind and nothing recaptures the feel of those far-off holiday seasons better than a look through its yellowing pages. Alongside advertisements for perennial children’s favourites like colouring books, dolls, plastic building blocks, a Mickey Mouse spinning top and the inevitable ‘Wild West’ guns, there’s a two-page spread showing large metal trucks by Hubley, with an advertising pitch that sounds like it’s aimed at parents more than children: ‘Their rubber wheels turn… and won’t make noise or scrape floors!’ Even at this early date, Hubley’s diecasts were pretty advanced, with some of the trucks having features like a rotating cement mixer, a cattle truck with opening rear doors and lifting cab revealing the engine and even a toy tractor with a spring-loaded seat. At lengths varying from 7” to 10”, these Hubley diecasts were to a larger scale than British Dinky Toys yet most cost less than one dollar at the time.
Also advertised that year were Revell’s plastic vintage car kits, anticipating a hobby that was to grow hugely popular in the course of the decade. Subjects offered included a 1911 Model T Ford, 1909 Stanley Steamer and 1903 Packard, but models of contemporary vehicles were soon to follow. A page is also devoted to a simpler form of plastic assembly toy, the Plasticville model village series from Bachmann Bros.
While Christmas would be the peak sales period for these toys, children would, of course, have been happy to receive them at any time of the year. One item designed to sell specifically at the Christmas season was the delightful ‘one horse open sleigh’ pictured here, a product of the Barclay Manufacturing Company. Barclay had been founded in the early 1920s and took its name, not from the founder but from Barclay Street in Hoboken, New Jersey, where the toys were made. The company became the biggest manufacturer of toy soldiers in the United States, distributed via Woolworth’s and other similar outlets, known in America as dimestores as products were sold there for a dime (10 cents) or less.
From 1932 onwards, Barclay also made toy vehicles and over the years created a huge range of civilian figures too, including the ‘Winter Classics’ series of ice skaters, skiers, figures with sledges, Victorian-style Christmas carol singers and even a snowman – all of which could be used to make very effective winter dioramas. Two typical figures sit in the sleigh: a man in a grey coat and a woman in red, both well-wrapped up against the cold with scarves and gloves. The horse, too, wears a coat, though this is simply a piece of red plastic tape wrapped around its middle, which also serves the function of holding on the metal shafts attached to the sleigh.
An original Barclay horse-drawn sleigh in mint condition, complete with its box – the one shown even has its inner packaging – is not easy to find and will probably cost you a three-figure sum, as the separate pieces are easily lost. However, reissues of this and many other old Barclay toys are still available in the USA for much less, though of course they don’t have quite the same feel as an original.
A firm with an even longer history than Barclay is the Hallmark Greetings Card company, founded in 1910 and still producing over half the greetings cards sold in the USA today. In 1973 Hallmark expanded its product line by introducing ‘Keepsake’ ornaments designed for use as Christmas tree decorations and collecting these has now developed into a hobby in its own right, with one of the most interesting series consisting of Classic American Cars.
The first of these appeared in 1991, a model of a 1957 Chevrolet Corvette moulded in plastic to make it light enough to hang on a Christmas tree yet sufficiently detailed to appeal to model car enthusiasts. The Corvette was followed by a 1966 Ford Mustang and a 1956 Ford Thunderbird, all of these being open cars with a replica Christmas tree or pile of gifts in the rear of the vehicle.
New additions to the range have continued on an annual basis, and this year the series has reached No 19, a 1963 Ford Thunderbird roadster. The introduction in 1999 of a model of a1949 Cadillac Coupe de Ville was a significant development as this was in metal rather than plastic. Many (but not all) the later additions are also diecast – though, in spite of the increased weight, they still come with a metal hook to hang the model on the Christmas tree!
Nostalgia is such a powerful force that there’s a good chance that quite a few of the youngsters who played with toys like the Barclay sleigh in the 1950s are among the most enthusiastic collectors of Hallmark’s ornaments today!