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15 Century-Old Toys We Still Want to Buy

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Before the 20th century, toys were of a limited sort. Dolls, rocking horses, balls, variations of popular firearms. The Industrial Age changed all that: As the middle class burgeoned, mass production became profitable, and children began to be treasured more than tolerated. In the 1920s especially, amazing technical innovations were trickling all the way down to the nursery. Here, taken mainly from a 1921 edition of Toys and Novelties, a trade magazine, are advertisements for some of those amazing new toys.

1. Buster Corporation Toy Telephone

These beauties are really just gussied up “tin can and string” telephones. They work the same way—sound waves are concentrated by a diaphragm which sends specific vibrations down the string to the receiver—but they looked way cooler when kids were playing Oil Barons vs. Railroad Barons. Go team Rockefeller!

2. Spelling Boards

Round spelling boards enjoyed decades of popularity, from the mid-1800s clear into the 1960s. The design allowed kids to spin the inner board, select letters, and spell out their own sentences. Most boards included numbers and arithmetic symbols as well. We’d probably still be enjoying them if Mr. Speak and Spell hadn’t crashed the party.

3. Roly Line Automobiles

They're still made today, of course; kid-sized cars have remained that one coveted gift on Christmas lists for over a century now. And how much more exciting it must have been in 1921, when your parents had only had a car for a couple of years. And whatever bucket of bolts they rattled around in certainly wasn’t as snazzy as this foot-pedaled Arden-Bennett Roly Line vehicle, which was modeled on racecars of the day.

4. AC Gilbert Toys

Full disclosure: I live 15 miles from A.C. Gilbert’s childhood home, which has been converted into a stunning children’s museum. He was a local boy. But that doesn't color my opinion when I say AC Gilbert toys were possibly the most brilliant toys ever made. Besides inventing the Erector Set, starting the toy train craze, and producing science and engineering kits containing ingredients you would now have to be a graduate student in chemistry to be allowed to handle, Gilbert produced all manner of “toys” that required the children who played with them to be careful and thoughtful. Being trusted with “dangerous” adult substances bred confidence in kids, and enabled them to create really cool, not school-cool, experiments. Granted, some may say giving children at-home atomic labs that contained actual uranium was a dubious venture. But a kid’s gotta learn about nuclear fission somewhere.

5. Keystone Moviegraph Projector

The Keystone Moviegraph pictured above was, according to collectors, an unusually fine machine. In 1921, it was freshly patented, and proudly advertised new “Non-Flammable Film!” Different size models were available, selling from $2.50 all the way to the $25 model, which could project on a five foot screen. The Moviegraphs were, of course, without sound, but the hijinks of the film strip heroes like Chaplin and Tom Mix needed no narration.

6. Dessart Brothers Masks

No matter how gory modern Halloween masks try to be, no matter how many hatchets are affixed to the top of how many exposed plastic brains, they will never equal the sheer creepiness of masks like these. Even when they’re not trying to be scary, the production processes and materials of the time ensured a definite, fantastic uneasiness. The Dessart Brothers began manufacturing “Hallowe’en” masks in 1894 and continued far into the 20th century, at one point becoming the largest manufacturer of masks in the world. Their creations have even been displayed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

7. Pocket Cat Cry

Have you ever stopped and taken a moment to feel sympathy for children who lived before the farting keychain? That they never had that delicious, naughty pleasure of annoying their parents and playing a practical joke on them at the same time? Don’t worry. Even a century ago, toy makers understood that need in children. This obnoxious little squeeze toy was only two inches in size, making it the perfect to covertly harass teachers and parents. And considering that in those days they were allowed to whip you for being annoying, it was a device only for the bold.

8. Cavalry horse costume

It’s hard to come to a conclusion on this one, isn’t it? Fantastically creative, or … too goofy for even a toddler. The Cavalry Horse dates from the 1913 edition of Toys and Novelties, before WWI had given war a more serious and modern bent. Schoenhut is perhaps the only toy company on our list still in operation; it manufactures the same toy it was originally famous for in the 19th century. It may surprise you to learn that toy is not the Cavalry Horse, but the famous Schoenhut’s Toy Piano.

9. The Pony Cycle

The patent for the Swender Ponycycle is available online, and I must admit, it shed almost no light on my research of this toy. It’s not the patent’s fault; I’m a shop class drop-out and get cold sweats when any diagram contains the label “fig.” But as far as I can tell, what made the Ponycycle special wasn’t just that it was a horse body mounted on a tricycle, but that the configuration of the gears allowed the horse to be propelled forward (gallop) each time the child bounced on it. Interestingly, there seems to be an extremely similar toy available today, under the name Ponycycle, though the two companies appear to be unrelated.

10. Sigwalt Printing Press

The Sigwalt brand small printing presses could be used as toys, but that was really just a lovely perk. Tabletop or “bedroom” sized printing presses became extremely popular in the late 19th century. Most were awful, of cheap construction that resulted in smudgy prints. Sigwalt was different, offering (very small) reliable models for as little as $1. Sigwalt presses remained popular until the 1960s.

11. Bow and Arrow Parachutes

It seems terribly unfair that these hardcore marvels of aeronautics fell by the wayside of history, while those awful little plastic guys, tied to garbage bag parachutes by pre-tangled string, stayed a birthday goody-bag staple. Look at these: silk and steel. Not to mention, how many physics lessons can you pack into one toy? There could be potential losses if this toy was put back on the market … mostly eyes. Why are the greatest toys the most deadly?

12. Treadle Factory Loom

It’s always a bit prickly, seeing turn of the century children working looms. But this loom is meant to be a creative new toy for a fortunate child, not the harbinger of stricter child labor laws. The loom, modeled after factory looms, could weave fabric up to 8 inches wide in an “endless variety of patterns.”

13. Toy Washing Machine

This is a tiny rust-proof clothes washer, “just like mother’s,” that promises little girls of 1921 not to harm “Dolly’s Nicest Finery.” It came in either hand-crank or electric (ehh … water, children and 1920s electrical apparatus … what could possibly go wrong?) models. As a mother myself I am particularly fond of the idea of teaching small children to do their own dang laundry. 

14. Silver Tinseled Santa

Technically this ornament might not be a toy. But it is a temperamental Santa sitting atop a glittering (“covered with real silver”) airplane. And so affordable at 10 cents. I can’t be the only one who wishes ornaments like this were still an option. 

15. Radium Eyes

Stuffed animals of this era were often a little wonky to begin with. Manufacturers hadn’t quite fluffed out how to get the “plush” into plush toys. But no one would be paying much attention to the strange texture and distribution of an animal’s fur, when its eyes were pouring radon gas into your very soul.  

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Artist Makes Colorful Prints From 1990s VHS Tapes

A collection of old VHS tapes offers endless crafting possibilities. You can use them to make bird houses, shelving units, or, if you’re London-based artist Dieter Ashton, screen prints from the physical tape itself.

As Co.Design reports, the recent London College of Communication graduate was originally intrigued by the art on the cover of old VHS and cassette tapes. He planned to digitally edit them as part of a new art project, but later realized that working with the ribbons of tape inside was much more interesting.

To make a print, Ashton unravels the film from cassettes and VHS tapes collected from his parents' home. He lets the strips fall randomly then presses them into tight, tangled arrangements with the screen. The piece is then brought to life with vibrant patterns and colors.

Ashton has started playing with ways to incorporate themes and motifs from the films he's repurposing into his artwork. If the movie behind one of his creations isn’t immediately obvious, you can always refer to its title. His pieces are named after movies like Backdraft, Under Siege, and that direct-to-video Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen classic Passport to Paris.

Screen print made from an old VHS tape.

Screen print made from an old VHS tape.

Screen print made from an old VHS tape.

Screen print made from an old VHS tape.

Screen print made from an old VHS tape.

Screen print made from an old VHS tape.

[h/t Co.Design]

All images courtesy of Dieter Ashton

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The Hole Story: A History of Skee-Ball
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In the early 1900s, the thing Joseph Fourestier Simpson desired most was to create something people respected. A career hustler—real estate agent, cash register salesman, and railroad clerk were just a few of the many jobs he held—Simpson longed to invent something he could patent that would have lasting appeal.

A handful of his inventions made minor waves: He perfected an egg crate that could protect shells during bumpy transportation routes, and created a new kind of trunk clasp that kept luggage tightly shut. None of it made him rich, but one invention in particular would at least gain him some national recognition. It was a ramp that could be set up in arcades and amusement parks, a kind of modified form of bowling that allowed players to lob a wooden ball over a bump and into a hole with a pre-assigned point value. He dubbed it Skee-Ball after the skee (ski) hills—and especially the ski jumps—that were then becoming popular in American culture.

Simpson filed for a patent in 1907 and received it in 1908. Later, he would see his Skee-Ball become a popular and pervasive attraction along the Atlantic City Boardwalk, in Philadelphia, and across the country. But Simpson wouldn’t see any profit from it. In fact, he'd suffer financial ruin. Even worse, history would become muddled to the point where most people wouldn’t even realize it was Simpson who had invented it.

Historic Images - Lancashire via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Up until recently, it was common for accounts of Skee-Ball’s history to name Princeton University alumnus J. Dickinson Este as the man behind the game. As the story goes, Este was motivated to find an inventive birthday gift for his son in 1909 and decided to craft an alley for a small, handheld ball using lumber he had obtained from his father’s successful wood business, and Skee-Ball was born.

The problem? Virtually none of it appears to be true. According to Thaddeus Cooper and Kevin Kreitman, co-authors of the recently-released Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball, Este was the beneficiary of Simpson’s innovation, but not the innovator. The authors cite their five years of research into the game’s origins and a key discovery at New Jersey's Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society, where, among other papers, Simpson’s 1908 patent for the machine resides.

“The history has become really muddled, at least on the internet,” Cooper tells Mental Floss. “Este, for one thing, didn’t have a son in 1909. He had twin daughters, much later on.”

Accounts seem to have conflated two different events: Simpson’s invention and Este’s later acquisition of the Skee-Ball business. After Simpson noticed the amusements industry taking off, he invented and patented the device; he and his partners, John Harper and William Nice, started marketing it to potential operators. None of the men were marketers, however, and they were never quite able to adopt the kind of salesmanship nor the resources needed to make Skee-Ball a household term. “It was your typical start-up problem,” Kreitman says. “They had the idea but not the money.”

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Simpson’s pockets ran dry; by 1911, he had even lost his house and was staying with friends. Este, who had been playing and enjoying the game in Philadelphia, rented some space near Princeton and installed a handful of alleys. When he saw that students were tripping over themselves to play, he decided to make a substantial investment—about $30,000 to $50,000 in today’s dollars—in the game. By 1914, he owned all rights and began an aggressive marketing effort using his wealthy family’s connections in the Pennsylvania news media.

“It was aggressive,” Cooper says. “You’d see ads with actual photographs, which was rare for amusement ads at the time. The copy would say something like, ‘Everybody is playing. Where have you been?’”

The hard sell worked. Soon, outlets like The New York Times were taking notice of the Skee-Ball craze spreading from the east coast. Co-ed tournaments sprung up; in Atlantic City, people seemed to be enjoying it a little too much, with the city clamping down on “noisy amusements” operating on Sundays.

Still, Skee-Ball was becoming a hit, thanks in part to a key design change prompted during the Depression. Originally built with a 32- to 36-foot-long ramp, the machines were cleaved in half so operators could fit the alleys into smaller, more affordable venues (10 feet is now the standard length). Not having to launch the ball such a long distance helped attract more kids to the game, who—along with adults—were plunking down an endless stream of nickels so they could get their nine balls and attempt to sink them. Prizes or tickets redeemable for prizes would be awarded to winners.

By this point, Este had exited the amusements business, selling his interest to his partners. By 1935, Skee-Ball was under the Wurlitzer umbrella. The jukebox maker had realized that Simpson’s device was outperforming their music libraries in several locations.

“They thought they would make a killing,” Kreitman tells Mental Floss. “They ramped up production and produced 5000 machines in 1937 alone.”

What Wurlitzer didn’t quite realize was that the machines made in the decades prior were so durable that they rarely needed replacing. “It took them about seven years to sell their stock,” Kreitman says.

Ownership changed again in 1945, when the Philadelphia Toboggan Company purchased Skee-Ball, and didn’t pass to other hands until 1985, when a businessman named Joe Sladek purchased it. Each owner has pursued Skee-Ball as a result of its considerable longevity and appeal, even though some local administrations have occasionally taken issue with the devices and their loose flirtation with gambling.

“I know at some point in Chicago some cops came in and chopped Skee-Ball machines apart with axes, then tossed them out the back door,” Cooper says.

Ryan Basilio via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Remarkably, Skee-Ball has remained largely unchanged for the past 110 years. Cooper says that Simpson’s early concept designs strongly resemble today's machines. It’s still a very analog experience: Pitch the ball, and hope you hit a high-scoring target.

In 2016, Skee-Ball changed hands once more, this time to the Bay-Tek company. It’s estimated that more than 125,000 machines are in operation today, with many locations organizing loose tournaments. Brewskee-Ball has made a name for itself as a leading competition league. Players can—and usually do—drink while playing, with winners receiving a cream-colored jacket and trophy as proof of their Skee-Ball prowess. Like roller derby participants, they favor colorful player names like Brewbacca and Monica LewinSkee and play during “skeesons.” (Back in March, Brewbacca was the focus of an ABC News digital feature.)

While some machines dating back to the 1940s are still in operation in a few locations, Cooper says he and Kreitman have yet to come across any of the original models from either Simpson or Este.

Simpson died in 1930, living long enough to see Skee-Ball become a popular pastime but unable to reap the financial rewards he had worked so hard to try and achieve.

“He was 57 when he invented it,” Kreitman says. “He saw the success, but never saw the financial benefits.”

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