Sunday, December 19, 2010

Two of My Favorite Toys

    It occurs to me that in this blog I have not returned to my antique toy collection since one of the very first blogs. It is Christmas time and it would seem a good time to describe two of my favorite toys and what I know about their history.

     This first toy you saw in the video is a tin wind-up walker. The late 19th century and early 20th century was the time of tin wind-up toys. These toys were made of pressed steel coated by tinplate. Then bright color was applied to the flat pieces of tinplate by chemical means, called chromlithography. After coloring the tinplate was formed over molds and then pieces were attached together with little metal tags. These toys were lighter weight than cast iron and therefore could be shipped less expensively. Tin toys came as still toys, as mechanized toys, sometimes with friction mechanism that would make the toy vehicle or animal run forward after gettings its wheels going. Another type of tin windup was the walker. This was a person or animal that would walk when wound up. Various personalities were made as walkers, especially the character, Charley McCarthy.

      My walker is Harold Lloyd, a silent film actor also known as Funny Face. Harold Lloyd (1893-1971) was born in Burchard, Nebraska on April 20, 1893, the second son of James Darsie and Elizabeth Lloyd. His ambition to perform… “ goes back to the first time I can remember knowing what an actor was. I never had any other idea. And when my family moved around, as it did frequently, I began to play in amateur theatricals. When I was only twelve years old, I was playing Little Abe in Tess of the D’Urbervilles.”
Stage roles in school productions led to work in stock productions. Harold was down to his last nickel in San Diego when the Edison Film Company came to town looking for extras. After shooting his four-second film debut as an Indian, Harold set his sights on a career in the movies and moved to Los Angeles. He used to sneak onto the Universal lot by putting on makeup and moving in and out of the gates with other actors that were going to lunch at an outside lunch counter. While on the Universal lot, Harold met Hal Roach who would later produce the films of Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang comedies. When Roach formed his own company, Lloyd joined him. Lloyd portrayed early comic characters that were not very different than Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Then Harold decided to transform his screen character into someone more like himself and his career took off. Harold was the first comedian to portray a character that looked and acted like someone sitting in the audience. He wore everyday clothes and a simple pair of horn-rimmed glasses. With this character he could experience the humor in everyday life and as an average fellow, Harold’s boy next door could have a romance. His character was the beginning of romantic comedy in films.

     Lloyd often did his own stunts in his films. On a Sunday in August of 1919, Harold posed for a photographer to promote his new feature length comedy. The set-up called for him to light a cigarette with a prop bomb – the round, black type you might see in cartoons. The bomb wasn’t a prop at all; it exploded in his hand. It ripped open the sixteen foot ceiling and left Harold blind and with most of his right hand missing. Doctors told him he would never see again and his career was over. But the doctors were wrong. Eventually, his sight did return, his scars healed, and a glove was crafted to hide his handicap from his public. He wrote the glove into every movie he ever made after the accident because he was afraid his public would worry for his safety and not laugh at his stunts and antics during the comedy. He became known as the “King of Daredevil Comedy.” His films out grossed the movies of Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton and he made more films than both of them put together. In 1928, Variety proclaimed him the highest paid film star.
     Harold was an innovator in the movie business. He pioneered new camera techniques and was one of the first filmmakers to preview his comedies to a test audience, and then re shoot recut and preview them again. At a time before unions, Harold paid his crew year-round, even when they weren’t shooting a film. When talking pictures came along, Lloyd was one of the first filmmakers to embrace the new medium. “Welcome Danger” opened in 1929 and was Lloyd’s highest grossing film. But 12 days later the stock market crashed and everything changed. Lloyd’s all American go-getter character no longer seemed in fashion to an audience struggling to survive the depression. His sound films in the 1930s lacked the success of his earlier silent work. He had made 200 films since his 4 second debut in 1913 and it was time to move on. In his later years, he became the highest ranking position of the Shriners. He devoted an entire year to visiting 130 temples across the country and during the last 20 years of his life worked tirelessly for the 22 Shriner Children’s Hospitals. He developed an interest in 3-D photography and traveled the world tasking pictures in stereo. He was the 5th film star to immortalize his hand and footprints in the pavement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. In 1953, Harold received an honorary Academy Award for being a “Master Comedian and Good Citizen”. Over 20 years after his death, his bespectacled face appeared on a US postage stamp.

     Quote from Harold Lloyd, “It has been amazing to me that these comedies can still strike a responsive note of laughter with audiences of all ages and in all parts of the world. Laughter is the universal language. It establishes a common identity among people – regardless of other differences. It is the sweetest sound in the whole world.”

     My walker is made by Louis Marx Co, a toy company that made tin windup and many playsets from the 1920s to 1960s. Since the early tin toys were made in Germany especially by a company called Lehmann, it was not until there was anti-German sentiment after WWI ended, that US made tin toys began to take off. Louis Marx was born in Brooklyn, NY to Jacob and Clara Lou Marx in 1896. After graduating from high school he became an office boy for Ferdinand Strauss, the mechanical toy manufacturer. Eventually he advanced to managing the Strauss New Jersey plant, but was fired for urging volume manufacturing/sales.

After returning from WWI, he established Louis Marx Stamp, Co with his brother David.
Louis Marx Co marketed toys from other toy manufactureres such as Girard Model Works, C G Wood, Strauss and Carter and ended up buying out many of these companies over the years.
By 1922 he had already sold over 8 million of each of his famous tin minstrel dancer and Zippo climbing monkey. In 1928 he produced the Yo-Yo, making over 100 million destributed through Sears.
Unlike A. C. Gilbert, (the man who saved Christmas) during WWII he turned to defense work. In 1948 he switched to Plastic toys with poly ethylene for strength. He is known first for his tin toys, including wind up mechanical, and later tin model trains, then for his playsets including both lithograph  tin buildings and plastic figures and accessories, and then later for the Big Wheel. In 1972 his sales had slipped and his company was purchased by Quaker Oats Co. and toy manufacturing was closed in 1975. There have been a couple attempts to resurrect the old models by American Plastics but there was limited success. Many of his tin toys and playsets survive in many collections around the world.Circa 1930. Made by Louis Marx Company. Working.

         While clearly intending to produce a toy featuring the silent era and early talkies comedian Harold Lloyd, Marx did not have a license to use his image. Unlike his rival Charlie Chaplin, Lloyd never licensed any toys, dolls, figurines or other collectibles. The toy is dated from about 1930.

     My Funny Face walker is even more special to me because it belonged to my father. It shows moderate wear where the arms swing against the body but as you saw still walks just fine.

     My second favorrite toy is a blackboard easel made by Richmond Educational Furniture Co, Muncie, IN. This is a very unique toy which provided both my mother and myself as well as our siblings hours of educational play. You see I have two of these easels. One belonged to my mother and probably dates to the late 1920s. Then my parents bought me one in the late 1940s. The lithographic scroll at the top of the easel is delightful in both versions. My mother's is a bit torn up and can't be scrolled easily, but mine is in fine shape as you will see in the video below. The fold down blackboard has a blackboard surface on both sides and can be used as a desk. There are storage pockets inside the fold down desk. The whole structure is made of oak and is very sturdy when folded out. It can also be folded up for easier storage in the closet against the wall.

     The Richmond School Furniture Company was founded by a Quaker attorney named William Foulke Spencer in Richmond, Indiana in 1892. It made school desks, bookcases, benches, chalkboards, etc. (Spencer had formerly partnered with another furniture company that was destroyed by fire.) At the same time he formed the American Lawn Mower Company and the two businesses shared facilities. The companies moved to Muncie in 1902 to be nearer the recently discovered natural gas sources, so we know that your chalkboard was made after that date. The company stayed in business, essentially producing the same sort of things, until the mid 20th century. (The American Lawn Mower Company is still in business today!)


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