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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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Kevin Burkett, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
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Restaurant Seeks Donations to Big Mouth Billy Bass Adoption Center
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Kevin Burkett, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

If you’ve ever wondered where all those Big Mouth Billy Bass singing fish that flew off shelves in the early 2000s have gone, take a look inside a Flying Fish restaurant. Each location of the southern seafood chain is home to its own Big Mouth Billy Bass Adoption Center, and they’re always accepting new additions to the collection.

According to Atlas Obscura, the gimmick was the idea of Dallas-based restaurateur Shannon Wynne. He opened his flagship Flying Fish in Little Rock, Arkansas in 2002 when the Big Mouth Billy Bass craze was just starting to wind down. As people grew tired of hearing the first 30 seconds of “Don’t Worry Be Happy” for the thousandth time, he offered them a place to bring their wall ornaments once the novelty wore off. The Flying Fish promises to “house, shelter, love, and protect” each Billy Bass they adopt. On top of that, donors get a free basket of catfish in exchange for the contribution and get their name on the wall. The Little Rock location now displays hundreds of the retired fish.

Today there are nine Flying Fish restaurants in Arkansas, Texas, and Tennessee, each with its own Adoption Center. There’s still space for new members of the family, so now may be the time to break out any Billy Basses that have been collecting dust in your attic since 2004.

And if you’re interested in stopping into Flying Fish for a bite to eat, don’t let the wall of rubber nostalgia scare you off: The batteries from all the fish have been removed, so you can enjoy your meal in peace.

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Lucy Quintanilla
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13 Stylish Facts About dELiA*s
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Lucy Quintanilla

Millennial women across the United States will remember rushing to their mailboxes after school to grab the hottest catalog of the ‘90s: dELiA*s. The groundbreaking magalog, which debuted in 1994, was, by 1998, sending out 55 million catalogs a year. REaD oN fOr A fEw fUN fACts aBoUt dELiA*s.

1. THE COMPANY WAS FOUNDED BY TWO MALE YALE GRADS.

Stephen Kahn and Christopher Edgar, former Yale roommates, were in their 20s when they started dELiA*s in New York in 1993. Kahn—who, after Yale, had studied political philosophy and Victorian history at Oxford—had taken a job at the brokerage firm PaineWebber and was studying for his MBA at night. But he was bored. He wanted to run his own company. “I was interested in being more creative,” Kahn told Crain’s New York Business in 1998. “And I wanted to make a lot of money.” He convinced Edgar to leave his comparative literature Ph.D. program at Columbia University to start the company. Kahn provided $100,000 of his own money, and his father provided another $100,000.

2. DELIA*S WAS ORIGINALLY AIMED AT COLLEGE-AGED WOMEN.

In the early ‘90s, 90 percent of catalogs were aimed at women aged 30 to 50; it was seeing fashionable undergrads at Columbia that inspired Kahn and Edgar to launch a catalog aimed at selling clothes to college-aged women. They called the catalog dELiA*s. (Where that name came from is a mystery.) Initially, they created 20,000 catalogs and, in 1994, hired students to distribute them around college campuses.

But the response from college women, Kahn told Chief Marketer in 1998, was “lukewarm.” After running ads for the catalog in a few magazines, they found a new market: the college students’ little sisters. “We got a huge response from high school kids,” Kahn said. “So basically the market found us.”

They expanded their customer base to include 10- to 24-year-olds with the goal of giving girls who might not live in areas with tons of shops for them an opportunity to buy cool clothes. (Fortune’s summation of the company’s strategy, from a 1997 article, is too amazing not to share: “Today’s average 14-year-old girl in Des Moines is just as hip to what’s hot as the 14-year-old in suburban Los Angeles … She, too, wants shiny avalanche pants and baby-T’s, but she’s stuck in the backwoods with nowhere to shop but her local Wal-Mart. Delia’s body glitter, like Dorothy’s red shoes, transports her from the farm to Melrose Avenue.”) “We felt that this group was not well served,” Edgar told The New York Times in 1997. “There wasn’t a recognition of these kids as real consumers.”

The first catalog hit campuses in the fall 1994, and quickly became a hit: Within four years, the company had annual sales of $158 million. When it went public in 1996, Kahn’s 57 percent share of the stock was worth $163 million.

3. KAHN AND EDGAR WOOED INVESTORS BY COMPARING dELiA*s TO MTV.

In the ‘90s, it was tough to get investors to put their money into catalogs. According to the Los Angeles Times, they “often doubted that teens will bother to leaf through pages and manipulate measuring tapes.” But dELiA*s was able to land financing by comparing its catalog to MTV’s programming. “We told them to think of us as a ‘channel’ through which you can program different types of apparel brands,” Evan Guillemin, the company's chief financial officer, told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “We, like MTV, stay constant … but we’ll provide them with a constantly changing assortment of designs and brands.”

4. CREATIVE DIRECTOR CHARLENE BENSON HAD A DAY JOB AND WORKED ON DELIA*S AT NIGHT FOR THE FIRST YEAR.

The cover of the first-ever dELiA*s catalog
The cover of the first-ever dELiA*s catalog.
Courtesy of Charlene Benson

With its irregular capitalization and engaging photos, dELiA*s was a standout from the start. That strategy came from creative director Charlene Benson and her collaborators. Benson was the art director of Mademoiselle magazine when she got the dELiA*s gig—and she kept that day job for a full year while producing the catalog at night.

How Benson got the dELiA*s job is what she calls a “folksy” story: One of her friends, the writer Hilton Als, met Kahn at an art show, and they got to talking about the catalog. Benson went in for an interview. The office was casual; “It looked like they had collected all the furniture off the street,” Benson tells Mental Floss. “They didn’t really have an idea of what it should be yet. They wanted to know if I knew how to put together a photo shoot, how to do the layout, how to talk to printers. It was more of the business part of it.”

Given pretty much free rein—albeit on a shoestring budget—Benson hired some help and got to work … at night, after she finished at her day job. And though she loved working at Mademoiselle (which was, she says, “wonderful”), dELiA*s gave her a different kind of opportunity. “I did all of the things that I didn’t get to do at Mademoiselle—choose the pictures where the girls were making faces, and have kind of more chaotic layouts, and just have a certain kind of fun and a certain kind of real girl-ness that I always missed working at a Condé Nast fashion magazine,” she says.

That included randomly capitalized type. “We really liked that mixed up and down type,” Benson says. “Sassy had kind of done something like that [before dELiA*s] and we really liked it. But because I was such a bad typist a lot of times my typing would kind of look like that, so it was like, ‘This feels right.’”

Benson didn’t do any market research to create the catalog, but she did look at teen magazines that were available at the time. “When I looked at teen stuff it was a lot of ‘how to kiss a boy,’ or ‘how to know if he likes you.’” She and her team decided to do the opposite: “It was kind of like, ‘Let’s do something where that’s not in the picture yet or maybe it’s not the most important thing to her—that she’s more creative, and she’s more interesting, and she’s more about her friends still.”

The copy in the catalog (an example: “wOulD YoU rAtHeR bE iN a cAve oF sNakEs oR a bAthTub fUlL oF sluGs?”) also reflected that—something Benson says parents appreciated. “I got a lot of nice notes from moms that would be like, ‘Oh thank you for the funny copy. My daughter and I had a really beautiful moment reading it together.’”

The first catalog, which Benson says “wasn’t totally baked,” was a huge success; Edgar came back to Benson in two months and said they’d sold every piece of merchandise. “He was like, ‘So we want to do another one,’ and I was like ‘Wow, didn’t you find that first one really difficult?’,” Benson says, laughing. “And so we did another one. ... I did that for a year and was still working at Mademoiselle and I just basically had no life,” Benson says. After that year, Kahn and Edgar asked Benson to come on full-time, and she left Mademoiselle. “That’s really when we made the catalog grow.”

5. THERE WAS A “FICTIONAL DELIA.”

Though no one knows where the name Delia came from (Benson calls it "one of the great mysteries"), according to Jim Trzaska, dELiA*s' photo producer, there was a fictional Delia who “was supposed to be a girl’s girl who loved hanging out with her friends above all else, and dressed for herself rather than to attract boys. That naturally set the tone at the photo shoots as well.”

6. THE CREW HAD A STRATEGY FOR MAKING PHOTO SHOOTS FUN.

A page from the Summer '97 dELiA*s catalog.

Rarely will you find a girl in a dELiA*s catalog smiling; she’s more likely to be making a funny face or looking like she’s having the time of her life. They were looking for a particular type of girl, Benson says—someone who was expressive. "Sometimes I would ask them, 'Do you want to be an actress someday?' The actual shoots were super fun. We just had the funniest crew, and the stylist that we worked with consistently, Galadriel Masterson, was just really, really funny and she had this way of teaching the girls how to be on set and how to express themselves. She had a really good idea for how to put the stuff together because we weren’t match-y and we weren’t outfit-y. We just shot a lot of film until we got the funny pictures we wanted." Benson brought on Kevin Hatt to photograph the early catalogs, and later, Mei Tao shot them.

According to the models who participated in those shoots—who typically had already appeared in teen mags like Seventeen—they really were awesome. “Every single one was fun,” model Kim Matulova told MTV. “There was always a lot of energy and it was very natural, unforced, and spur-of-the-moment. [The photographer] would just turn on the music and let us girls do our thing, and he’d capture it.”

The photographer shot on Polaroid, and the models would get to take some photos home at the end of the shoot. “I have a huge box at my mom’s house full of old Polaroids and outtakes,” Matulova said.

A page from the Summer '97 dELiA*s catalog.

The crew also had a strategy for getting girls to let loose. “One thing that always got a big reaction from everyone on set was a fake boy named ‘Billy’ who was invented by our lead stylist, Galadriel Masterson,” Trzaska told Refinery 29. “Depending on what kind of mood we needed from the model, ‘Billy’ could be anyone from a shady ex-boyfriend to a bratty little brother or a gay best friend. He definitely helped us get the shot on more than one occasion.”

7. YOU MIGHT FIND SOME FAMOUS FACES IN YOUR OLD CATALOGS.

Miranda Kerr, Brooklyn Decker, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Cassie, and Krysten Ritter all struck a pose for dELiA*s back in the day.

8. AT ITS PEAK, THE COMPANY GOT THOUSANDS OF CATALOG REQUESTS DAILY.

Courtesy of Charlene Benson

According to Chief Marketer, by August 1998, Delia’s was receiving 3000 to 5000 catalog requests every single day. (Some outlets suggest the number was as high as 7000 requests a day.) The company had a whopping 5 million names in its database, each one accompanied by its precise order history.

According to The Cut, 4 million people—or 10 percent of the 40 million female Millennials currently living in the United States—have requested a dELiA*s catalog.

9. THERE WERE PLENTY OF COPYCATS.

Not surprisingly, dELiA*s' massive success led to a number of “magalog” competitors, including Zoe, Wet Seal, moXiegirl (or mXg), Alloy, Airshop, and Just Nikki. But Kahn was not threatened by the competition. “People will try to play catch-up,” he told Chief Marketer. “There will be a shakeout on the imitator side. Most of these guys will lose a lot of money for a long time.”

10. THERE WAS A SPIN-OFF FOR BOYS.

Droog, a.k.a. dELiA*s for boys, launched in 1998. Though it, too, aimed for a market Kahn and Co. thought was untapped, its approach was different than its big sister’s: Instead of being shot in a studio, Droog was shot in fields and parking lots. Its centerfold featured a car, shot head on, bearing a license plate which read “Droog.” The name was the result of a company contest. It was, Kahn told Catalog Age in 1999, a “natural progression from dELiA*s” that featured “streetwear, workwear, and urban and athletic lines.”

Sadly, Droog did not find the same success as dELiA*s; according to Catalog Age, it folded in 2000.

11. THERE WAS A CATALOG FOR HOME FURNISHINGS, TOO.

Contents, which featured roomwares for teens, launched in the late ‘90s. Says Benson, who collaborated with a designer named Whitney Delgado on the catalog: "I love the pictures so much, and those crazy rooms that we built."

12. THE BRICK-AND-MORTAR STORES POSED A PARTICULAR CHALLENGE FOR BENSON.

A Delia's storefront.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Following the launch of its website in 1998 (which, according to Chain Store Age accounted for two to three percent of the company's total sales in just two weeks online), dELiA*s began opening brick-and-mortar stores in 1999. Creating the look of the stores was, according to Benson, a tough but rewarding assignment.

To help, the company enlisted visual merchandiser Renee Viola and hired store designer John Farnum, who had worked with Nike. “The tricky part was like ‘OK, we have this thing, it looks like this and feels like this in print. How do we bring what’s happening here into the stores?’” she says. “We didn’t want to lose what we had. From a design standpoint and a building creative team standpoint, it was super fun—I haven’t been in a store development process that was so collaborative since. It was quite wonderful.”

13. THE COMPANY WAS SOLD, WENT OUT OF BUSINESS, AND CAME BACK FROM THE DEAD.

In 2003, amidst decreasing sales, dELiA*s was sold to Alloy, its former competitor, for $50 million. (Catalog Age called it “one of the hottest pairings in teendom since Britney and Justin.”) Alloy at first absorbed the company; then, two years later, spun it off again so it was a separate entity. In 2014, after it lost $57 million, dELiA*s filed for bankruptcy; all of its retail locations and its website were shuttered by March 2015.

But that wasn’t the end. In early 2015, Delia’s was purchased by Steve Russo and other investors and relaunched that August. “In speaking to women who came of age in the ‘90s, they all said they couldn’t wait to receive their dELiA*s catalog in the mail after school,” Russo told The Huffington Post. “The company in those days was visionary, with its inclusive product assortment. We saw an opportunity to revive that excitement in every girl again through print catalogs, exciting new social media campaigns, and a strong e-commerce presence.” You can shop here.

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