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15 Century-Old Toys We Still Want to Buy

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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10 Colorful Facts About Teletubbies
Ian Gavan, Getty Images
Ian Gavan, Getty Images

It was the show that every baby loved and every parent found annoying, but somehow Teletubbies took over the world in the late 1990s, much the same way The Beatles did in the 1960s. Tinky-Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po—the four colorful characters with televisions in their stomachs—demanded hugs, loved to repeat themselves, and became icons of educational television, though many still question just what was to be learned from their antics. On the 20th anniversary of the series' American premiere, we're looking behind the scenes of the weird show that somehow just worked.

1. THEY WERE RACIALLY DIVERSE, INSIDE AND OUT.

When the Teletubbies sat down with Today to reveal their true identities, fans learned that the actors inside the costumes were as diverse as the characters themselves, and each one added a bit of his or her own culture to the character they portrayed. John Simmit blended reggae into Dipsy’s babytalk, while Pui Fan Lee incorporated Cantonese into Po’s gibberish. In a short film called Understanding Teletubbies, Tina Wagner from Ragdoll Productions and educational consultant Faith Rogow revealed that body color and height are not the only differences between the four characters. “They also have different skin tones in their faces,” Rogow said. “All of that is very purposeful.”

2. THEY LOOK LIKE ALIENS BUT WERE INSPIRED BY ASTRONAUTS.

Teletubbies co-creator Andrew Davenport told The Guardian that when writing the show, he was inspired by the moon landings and the physical appearance of the astronauts. “It struck me as funny that, at this pinnacle of human achievement, the figures that emerged in bulky spacesuits from landing capsules are like toddlers, with oversized heads and foreshortened legs,” he said, “and they respond to the excitement of their new world by bouncing about. So I devised characters based on spacemen, with limited language just like the emergent speech of young children.”

3. THEY’RE A LOT TALLER THAN THEY LOOK.

Because the Teletubbies only appear on the show in their fake world, there is nothing to compare them to besides each other. Wagner revealed in the short film that in costume, Tinky-Winky is almost nine feet tall.

4. THE RABBITS IN TELETUBBYLAND WERE ALSO MASSIVE.

Teletubbies co-creator Anne Wood revealed in an interview with The Guardian that those cute and fluffy rabbits that appear in the show are not your average pet bunnies. “They needed to be big to fit in with the scale,” Wood said. There was also a problem with their health. “The only suitable ones we could find had been bred on the continent to be eaten,” Wood revealed. “We gave them perfect conditions, running free over the Teletubby grasslands, but their breeding had given them enlarged hearts, and almost weekly the animal trainer would greet me in distress and tell me another had died.”

5. IT WAS THE BBC’S BIGGEST BRAND.

The world famous Teletubbies (L-R) Po, Laa-Laa, Dipsy and Tinky-Winky cross 7th Avenue in Times Square in New York 27 March 2007 as they arrive on American soil in person for the first time ever.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY, AFP/Getty Images

According to the BBC'S annual report for 1998/1999, Teletubbies was its leading brand with over $46 million in revenue. At the time, they were seen by children in 120 countries and territories and aired in 20 languages.

6. THEY SUED WAL-MART.

Because the Teletubbies brand was so big, it had to be protected. In 1999, they sued Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for selling blatant knockoffs called Bubbly Chubbies. “It's not flattery. It's just illegal," Kenn Viselman, the chief executive of the company that marketed the Teletubbies in the United States, told the Los Angeles Times. A spokesperson said that Wal-Mart would “never knowingly infringe on copyright or trademark law,” but the company later agreed to stop selling the toys and destroyed the rest of the inventory.

7. SOME PEDIATRICIANS PROTESTED.

In 1999, the German Association of Pediatricians argued that Teletubbies was bad for children because it (and other shows like it) caused “uncontrollable television consumption in later years.” The doctors also questioned the educational value of the show.

8. TAYLOR SWIFT WAS A FAN.

This past Halloween, Taylor Swift Instagrammed a throwback photo of a Teletubbies costume she wore as a child. The photo is black-and-white, but Swift said that she was Laa-Laa and none of the other kids got it. “When you dress as the yellow teletubby for Halloween, but it's before Teletubbies got huge so all the kids at school ask you why you're dressed as a yellow pregnant alien,” she captioned the photo.

9. THERE WERE A LOT OF EPISODES.

According to IMDb, there were 365 episodes of Teletubbies produced. They aired in the UK on BBC2 between March 31, 1997 and February 16, 2001, and on PBS in the U.S. And there will be more episodes: In 2015, a Teletubbies reboot was announced. The series has also been kept alive in pop culture thanks to numerous references in everything from Family Guy to Doctor Who to Major League Baseball.

10. THEY ARE PLATINUM RECORDING ARTISTS.

On December 1, 1997, the Fab Four dropped a single called “Teletubbies Say ‘Eh-Oh'.” In the week before Christmas, the song had already reached number one on the Billboard UK Singles Chart, selling 1.2 million copies and earning a double platinum certification. It remained in the top 75 for 29 weeks.

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When Michael Flatley Was 'Lord of the Dance'
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Jo Hale, Getty Images

In 1989, while speaking with the Chicago Tribune, a 30-year-old dancer named Michael Flatley outlined some significant plans he had for the future. Chief among them: franchising a plumbing business called Dynasewer, which he hoped would one day replace Roto-Rooter as the go-to company for desperate people with impenetrably clogged toilets.

Few people outside of the Chicago area have ever heard of Dynasewer, which tells you everything you need to know about Flatley’s grand plans. Instead of running a sewage empire, he embraced dancing, something he had loved and practiced since the age of 11. A little over six years later, he was selling millions of videos and made a fortune touring as the Irish-stepping star of Lord of the Dance.

 
 

The contrast between Flatley’s plumbing aspirations and his theatrical gifts isn’t as jarring as it might seem. Born in Chicago on July 16, 1958 to Irish immigrants, Flatley took cues from both his parents. His mother was an accomplished Irish step-dancer, which usually emphasizes a rigid torso and vertically-held arms along with rhythmic lower body choreography; his grandmother was a contest champion in their native Ireland. His father was a construction laborer and plumber who eventually owned his own contracting business. There was no reason Flatley couldn’t be inspired by both of their talents.

Dancing was an informal hobby for the young Flatley, and one he didn’t begin to take seriously until age 11—a significantly late start for step-dancers. To make up for lost time, Flatley practiced for hours every day in his family’s garage. The work paid off: At 17, he won the All-World Championships in Ireland, becoming the first American ever to do so.

While it was a commendable accomplishment, and one that surely thrilled the step-obsessed Flatleys, Irish stepping was not considered a viable option toward financial independence. For the next several years, Flatley assisted his father in construction work, digging ditches and contemplating a career in professional boxing, another physically demanding passion he had developed.

Then The Chieftains came calling. The Irish folk band was successful touring Ireland with an act that mixed traditional Celtic music with high-energy step routines, and Flatley acquitted himself well as a supporting player. He accompanied the group for four years, at the same time developing the Dynasewer brand as a financial cushion to fall back on, as he assumed his dancing career would be a short-lived endeavor. Even a Guinness World Record—which Flatley earned for tapping his feet 28 times in one second in 1989—was hard to monetize. (In 1998, he broke his own record when he reached an impressive 35 taps per second.)

Flatley’s fortunes changed in 1994, thanks to the Eurovision Song Contest. Looking to broadcast the distinctive art of Irish stepping, Flatley joined a new troupe and co-created Riverdance, a seven-minute number that broadened the appeal of his art by adding flashy costumes, a stage-filling number of backup performers, and a degree of sensuality.

Riverdance was a phenomenal ratings success, becoming the talk of that year’s Eurovision field in much the same way Michael Jackson had walked off with a televised Motown special in 1981 by debuting the Moonwalk. Almost immediately, Flatley and producers began assembling a full-length Riverdance stage show that was even more bombastic. Flatley, his exposed torso reminiscent of a flamenco dancer, led a wildly successful international tour and became one of the very few dancers recognizable to the general public—attention usually only afforded to actor-performers like Gregory Hines or Mikhail Baryshnikov.

For six months, Flatley was on top of the world. Then, the night before Riverdance was scheduled to open in London, he was fired.

 
 

According to Flatley, the acrimonious split from Riverdance was a result of the show’s unprecedented success. As the key creative force behind the scenes, the performer wanted to retain control of his choreography, a concession that the show’s producers were unwilling to make. In a show of force, they ousted their star from the stage.

Flatley’s legal response to that situation wouldn’t be resolved until 1999, when the two parties came to an undisclosed settlement. But it didn't take that long for the parties to realize that it was Flatley, and not the Riverdance banner, that audiences were flocking to see. Less than six months after his Riverdance dismissal, Flatley and new partner John Reid conceived Lord of the Dance, a brand-new stage attraction that featured a loose narrative—Flatley is a warrior up against sinister forces—and even more bombastic theatrics. (Reid and Flatley would part ways, rather acrimoniously, a couple of years later.) Flatley exuded so much energy that he claimed he lost 8 to 10 pounds during each performance (then ate “everything in sight to keep my weight up").

'Lord of the Dance' star Michael Flatley poses during a public appearance
Alaxandra Beier, Getty Images

Lord of the Dance was a staggering success, making $60 million in just two years of touring and selling 12 million copies on video. Flatley continued performing through 1998, before announcing his retirement from the show. He was nearing 40, and his back, feet, and joints had taken a significant amount of impact. He felt it was time to step away.

In 2005, the urge to perform returned, and Flatley debuted Celtic Tiger. He continued dancing through 2016, at which point, he told reporters, being the Lord of the Dance had led to diminished physical abilities. “My groin is gone,” he said. And his left foot sometimes fractures spontaneously.

Wealthy from touring, Flatley could sit idle and nurse his aching frame. Instead, he recently shot a film, Blackbird, which he directed and stars in alongside Eric Roberts. He also paints, albeit in an unconventional way: Flatley produces abstract works by dipping his feet into paint and moving them across the canvas.

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