Do you remember your favorite toy? Chances are it was made in New Jersey, especially if you are of a certain age.
Because of its inventive and industrial might, as well as the fact that our state is blessed with numerous ports, rail lines, and major highways, New Jersey was a pioneering center for the toy industry and was home to more than 50 different companies that produced everything from tinplate toys to model trains, to a host of dolls, including Raggedy Anne and Andy, made by the Knickerbocker Toy Company of Middlesex.
This little-known but extensive aspect of Garden State history is being celebrated at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, with its latest exhibition, “Toy World,” spotlighting the tale of toy manufacturing in our state. The exhibition runs through Sunday, April 30, 2017, in the museum’s small Riverside Gallery.
Showcasing more than 100 toys made here between 1880 and the late 1960s, “Toy World” features such favorites as Colorforms playsets, the Suzy Homemaker oven, and those plastic green World War II Army men that seemed to be everywhere years ago.
Going back further, the exhibition features many tinplate toys made by J. Chein and Company, which operated a huge plant in Burlington City from 1949 to 1970. “Toy World” boasts a large collection of colorful tinplate mechanical creations by Chein — festive carousels, a roller coaster and Ferris Wheel that evoke amusement parks like Coney Island, as well as a helicopter, and even a ski resort.
On view are numerous dolls made at the “World’s Largest Doll House,” the Horsman Doll Factory in Trenton. Courtland Toys of Camden, Mantua Toys or Tyco of Woodbury Heights, Newark’s Remco, and the obscure Hopewell company Hoproco are also included.
“You can’t come here and see Barbie or G.I. Joe, but you can see toys made by 50 different New Jersey companies,” says Nick Ciotola, curator of cultural history at the NJSM. “We wanted to do something a little more lighthearted. We wanted to tell real stories of New Jersey. As you go through the exhibit, you learn a lot, but through the lens of toys and toy manufacturing.”
He explains that, because New Jersey is in the most populated part of the country and has a vast transportation network, it was perfectly situated to make the toys, and then quickly distribute them to various markets.
“So the story of New Jersey toy making is a story of geography,” Ciotola says. “In 1950 only four states made more toys than New Jersey, and that’s significant considering these were big states known for toy manufacturing — Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois.”
In addition to the historic toys on display, the exhibition includes an interactive play area, a “wall of fame” for toys (all with a Jersey connection), and a place to remember and write about favorite childhood toys. There is also a 1950s-style “living room” where you can sit on a carrot-colored couch and watch a loop of old toy commercials on a vintage Motorola television.
The trek through the toys starts with the Hall of Toy Innovations display, just outside the doors of the Riverside Gallery. Each case tells a story of an innovative toy that came out of New Jersey and had a national impact, for example, the Flexible Flyer sled.
“The revolution or innovation in this case was the idea, ‘let’s make a sled you can actually steer,’ which was a step up from a toboggan,” Ciotola says. “This was invented by Samuel Allen, a man who had an agricultural supply business in Philadelphia, which kept him busy in the spring, summer, and fall, but not in the winter.”
“He was (puttering around) his family’s property in Moorestown, Burlington County, and realized that in the winter, his company could sell sleds,” Ciotola says. “So (the Flexible Flyer) was developed in 1889; Allen gets a patent, starts producing the sleds, and they’re made for more than 100 years.”
From Asbury Park, we got an assortment of practical joke toys made by the S.S. Adams Company, which started in Asbury Park but became so successful, moved to a larger facility in nearby Neptune.
Things like “fly-in-the-ice-cube,” black soap, fake mustaches, snake-in-the-can, and most famously the handshake-buzzer called the Joy Buzzer, came from the fertile mind of Sam (Soren) Adams.
“Sam Adams was the consummate practical joke entrepreneur, and he became a millionaire through his inventions,” Ciotola says. “He invented hundreds of joke toys, including the Joy Buzzer. This was a simple steel mechanism that you put in the palm of your hand and wound up, then when you shook hands with someone it vibrated.”
“Adams’ business existed for about 100 years,” he adds. “It started at the turn of 20th century, then it was run by his descendants, and it went on almost through the year 2000.”
Another innovation that has its roots in New Jersey is something called “The Cradle Gym,” invented by Henry Miller and made by his company, Childhood Interests of Roselle Park. Essentially, Miller was the first to understand that toys could be sold to infants and other very young children.
“Miller realized that children of any age can benefit from toys, even infants,” Ciotola says. “He came up with the Cradle Gym, which gives the child something (on which) to practice his or her motor skills. He was inspired by Alexander Calder’s mobiles, and you can see this in the bright colors and shapes of the ‘gym,’ which is made with wood and Bakelite.”
The story of the American model train also has its beginnings in New Jersey, as Ciotola explains that the Lionel corporation began in our state around 1900.
“But before Lionel, there was Eugene Beggs in Paterson, who, in 1889, created the first model trains produced in this country,” Ciotola says.
Interestingly, like a real train, Beggs’ toy train is powered by a steam boiler, but in miniature. “You’d fill the model’s boiler with water, fill the engine tank with alcohol or ethanol, and there was a wick that you’d light, so it would ignite to produce steam that turned the wheels and pulled the cars forward,” Ciotola says.
“Because there wasn’t so much power, the cars were made of cardboard — so you have alcohol, an open flame, and cardboard,” he adds, implying that it wasn’t the safest toy to come along.
Later one of Beggs’ employees, Jehu Garlick, brainstormed and produced a safer electrical-powered toy train. The example of Garlick’s invention in the exhibit closely resembles a real-life, old-time street car or trolley, with the same overhead electric power source. Electricity for model trains became the gold standard, Ciotola says.
One very rare toy in the exhibit — a 19th century “talking” doll — was invented by Thomas Edison. Although the porcelain face and body were made in Germany, the tiny phonograph inside the doll, which plays a snippet of a nursery rhyme, was made in Edison’s factories in West Orange.
“Edison had a million ideas, but one of them was the ‘talking’ doll,” Ciotola says. “We all know about talking dolls, but we probably don’t know that Edison pioneered the idea. It has a horn or speaker in its chest and a miniature wax cylinder phonograph inside the doll, which played part of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ when it was wound up.” (He points out a QR code that can be scanned to hear this rather spooky recording.)
An especially fun item on view is the circa 1960 Movieland Drive-In by Remco of Newark. Inspired by the first drive-in movie theater, which opened in Camden in the 1930s, this example happened to be “showing” “Have Gun, Will Travel” as the feature, along with Captain Kangaroo and Heckle & Jeckle cartoons.
“It’s an early electronic/battery-powered toy, and it came with different little film strips that could be ‘projected’ onto the screen, like a real drive-in movie,” Ciotola says. “It retailed for about $10 back then.” (Incidentally, a 1959 version runs for about $250 on eBay.)
Many more toys are arranged inside the gallery in the kind of “toy window” people of a certain age might remember. Long, long before the internet, and even before holiday catalogs, the must-have toys were displayed in festive department store windows.
“Around the holiday season, the stores would create these elaborate toy windows, and you’d go downtown and look at the display,” Ciotola says.
A couple of the toys in the exhibit reflect the social history of their time, for example Unique Art Manufacturing’s circa 1930s “Lincoln Tunnel.” This is a tin wind-up device, where the cars and buses go around in a loop, in and out of the Lincoln Tunnel. Humorously, New York is depicted as a bustling metropolis on one side, and New Jersey is portrayed as bucolic farmland.
Topper Toys in Elizabeth launched the Suzy Homemaker line in the mid-1960s, and the NJSM has one of its aqua-green ovens on display.
“This would have been in competition with (Hasbro’s) Easy-Bake Oven,” Ciotola says. “Suzy Homemaker was said to be better though, because it had burners on top of the stove which worked. They made a line of appliances, including a blender, an iron, a refrigerator, a washing machine, and more.”
This line of toys came up against the rising women’s liberation movement, however, which had Suzy Homemaker’s critics wondering why little girls were only being encouraged to “play” in the kitchen or laundry room. It’s a thoughtful example of how “Toy World” goes beyond just an exhibit of vintage playthings.
A specific Princeton connection in the exhibit would be Creative Playthings, a company founded in New York in the mid-20th century by toy designer, author, educator, philanthropist, and advocate of early childhood development Robert Caplan; the company then re-located to the outskirts of Princeton.
Both Robert and his equally accomplished wife,Theresa, settled in Princeton and lived their lives here. Robert died in 1988, and Theresa died in 2010 at the age of 96.
In the exhibit there is a sturdy marble and wood race toy, a perfect example of how Caplan wanted to encourage nonviolent imaginative play, without any strict rules. The use of wood in the 1950s and ’60s was also a bit radical, since plastics were everywhere.
We also see a handful of intriguing but simple finger puppets of different ethnicities and international costumes, another example of how Creative Playthings wished to teach tolerance and support awareness of diversity.
“Creative Playthings had a warehouse, distribution center, and offices on a 22-acre site located near ‘Locust Corner,’ which is where West Windsor, East Windsor, and Cranbury come together,” Ciotola says. “But the company packaging always said ‘Princeton.’”
Sadly, all of the New Jersey manufacturers showcased in “Toy World” are gone from our state. They went out of business, or were absorbed by huge multi-national corporations, Ciotola says.
Yet the Garden State is still an important center for the toy industry insofar as the international headquarters of Toys R Us is located in Wayne. And New Jersey continues to be home to quite a few toy companies, including Reeves International of Pequannock; Alex Brands of Fairfield; International Playthings of Parsippany; Blue Box Toys USA in Livingston; and the Maplewood-based Brer Rabbit Toys, to name a few.
A Lambertville resident, Ciotola pronounced (“Cha-toe-lah”) curated 2014’s “New Jersey on Display,” showcasing the history of our state’s involvement in the World’s Fairs, which also included the reunion of four magnificent vases made in Trenton. Raised in White Plains, New York, he says his love for history was likely handed down from his father, a high school history teacher.
Ciotola’s interest in the Garden State came when his family criss-crossed New Jersey to visit extended family in Pennsylvania, as well as going on numerous family vacations related to America history here and in the tri-state area. (For a full profile of Ciotola, see the US1 article “A Trenton Reunion — of Vases — Makes History,” June 18, 2014.)
He says his favorite childhood toys were the green World War II Army men, pioneered by the Bergen Toy and Novelty Company (Beton) of Carlstadt and later Hackettstown. This interest sprung from his fascination with World War II, especially the fact that his grandfather was an Army infantryman.
“My grandfather went overseas in 1944 with the 328th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry Division, and fought in Western France in the fall and winter of 1944 when the 26th Division pushed towards Germany to close out the war,” Ciotola says. “The campaign was known for the bitter cold and snow.”
“Green Army men, because they were pioneered soon after World War II, were modeled with the arms, equipment, and uniforms of World War II soldiers,” he continues. “These simple toys allowed my brother and me to recreate the battles of World War II and the stories we heard from my grandfather.”
“I liked their simplicity, historical connection, and low cost, allowing one to amass hundreds and hundreds of them. You could buy them mail order from ads at the back of World War II comic books like ‘G.I. Combat’ and ‘Sgt. Rock,’ or buy them at the local corner store,” Ciotola says. “Yes, we had corner dime stores when I was a kid in the 1970s!”
Toy World, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton, through April 30, 2017. Museum hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., suggested admission $5 and under, 609-292-6464 or www.statemuseum.nj.gov.