Planes, Trains, & Automobiles: Classic Toys and Americana

FWMoA is proud to present selections from our growing toy collection. This small exhibition captures a moment in the history of American toys that reflect the America of the early to the mid-20th century. From their humble beginnings as simple wooden figurines, toys have grown to mirror the cultural context in which they are created.

While recent years have brought more fluidity to the professional and social roles of men and women, the parameters surrounding toys for boys and girls have been historically distinct. Audiences are invited to see how the toys displayed here, hailing mostly from the mid-20th century, truly reflect the era in which they were created. This can be seen in more than just the specific themes of “boy” or “girl” toys, but also in their distinct styles and designs. These factors – design and cultural influence – were in fact paramount to the inception of American Toy Manufacturing as an industry.

The origins of many classic toys such as dolls, trains, and toy soldiers can be traced to the earliest American settlements, as European immigrants often brought playthings from their native lands. One of the earliest known toys to survive from early America is a doll brought over in 1699 by William Penn, former Englishman and founder of present-day Pennsylvania. The doll is simple and made of wood, which was common for toys of this period. Young girls often played with wooden dolls garbed in simple skiff dresses, while boys traditionally played with small wooden guns or horses. This gender divide of traditional toys would hold strong well into the modern era. From the outset of toy creation in both Europe and America, girls often played with toys associated with domesticity, such as dolls, while boys were given tools, animals, soldiers, and eventually, automobiles.

Before the late 1700s, nearly all American children’s toys were imported. However, American industry began to gain a foothold, and Francis, Field & Francis, often regarded as America’s first toy manufacturer, was established in the late 18th century. American children were now being supplied with patriotic, American-made toys. The catalyst for American production and a new feeling of national pride can be attributed to the American Revolution, as our young nation strove to prove itself as a world power, demonstrating that it was able to provide for its citizens through its own means, no matter how young they may be. While large-scale toy manufacturers would take another 100 years to truly stake their claim on the international stage, by 1860 American manufacturers had created a booming toy industry that shaped and defined childhood.

Many classic toys were developed during the Golden Age of American toy manufacturing, the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. It was during these 100 years that two major cultural shifts occurred. First and foremost, Christmas began to be viewed as primarily a time to exchange gifts. This gave rise to the popularity of department stores such as Macy’s where entire departments were newly devoted to toys and childhood. Additionally, catalogs now made the burgeoning toy industry accessible by mail order. The preeminent publication Playthings released its first issue in 1903 and is still in circulation today.

Perhaps the most important development during this period was the growing interest in children and childhood. In Europe, the fascination with childhood began in the early decades of the 19th century, and by the end of the Civil War interest in children had gripped America as well. This is evidenced by the sheer increase in toy patents immediately following the war: there were only 17 toy patents between 1861-65, nearly all of them for guns, and from 1866-70 there were over 166. Many of these patents utilized the new and exciting mechanics of clockwork and steam-powered toys, which enabled children to play with interactive figurines. This was especially important in the realm of locomotive toys, which remain popular to this day.

It was during the Golden Age of Toys that many of our nursery toy staples were created. Toy manufacturer powerhouse Charles Crandall dominated the industry with his spelling and building blocks, of which he said “The only limit of what can be made with my blocks is in the imagination of the user.” Crandall’s blocks still inhabit virtually every preschool or playroom today. One of the largest toy producers in the history of American toys also made a name for himself during this time, and his inventions are known by both toy enthusiasts and recreational players alike: Milton Bradley. His classic game The Checkered Game of Life (simply Life as we know it today) has entertained the young and young at heart for over 150 years.

This is an ongoing display.