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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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Faruk Ateş, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
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How a Wall of Lava Lamps Makes the Web a Safer Place
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Faruk Ateş, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

A secure internet network relies on bits of data that hackers can’t predict: in other words, random numbers. Randomization is an essential part of every encryption service, but spitting out a meaningless stream of digits isn't as easy as it sounds. Computerized random number generators depend on code, which means it's possible for outside forces to anticipate their output. So instead of turning to high-tech algorithms, one digital security service takes a retro approach to the problem.

As YouTube personality Tom Scott reports in a recent video, the San Francisco headquarters of Cloudflare is home to a wall of lava lamps. Those groovy accessories play a crucial role when it comes to protecting web activity. The floating, liquid wax inside each of them dictates the numbers that make up encryption codes. Cloudflare collects this data by filming the lamps from a wall-mounted camera.

Unlike computer programs, lava lamps act in a way that's impossible to predict. They're not the only secure way to generate randomness (tools used by other Cloudflare offices include a "chaotic pendulum" and a radioactive source), but they may be the prettiest to look at.

[h/t Tom Scott]

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How a Rain-Soaked Seattle Bookstore Helped Invent the School Backpack

Cori Mothersbaugh remembers how she used to get her books from one class to another. Starting in grade school in the 1960s and through her sophomore year at the University of Washington in 1972, textbooks would be wrapped in a heavy brown paper bag and piled up in her arms. “My generation, we didn’t put books in anything,” the 66-year-old tells Mental Floss. “We just carried them.”

By the time that finally changed, Mothersbaugh would be close to graduation. But she could take a little solace in the fact that, as an employee at the University’s campus bookstore, she was an eyewitness to a meeting between an outdoor equipment salesman and a store manager that would forever influence how kids toted their school supplies.

A woman wears a white JanSport backpack
JanSport

A leather belt. That’s what kids in the early 1900s often used to cart their school books around, securing the strap around the pile and using the slack as a handle. Sometimes the strap would be made specifically for the purpose. Other times, kids would just use a waist belt, cinching it to create a bottom-heavy contraption that was probably used by more than one child as a bludgeon.

Around the same time, some enterprising outdoor equipment suppliers were making upgrades to the totes and satchels favored by their outdoor enthusiast customers. Taking a cue from the Inuit designs he saw in his Alaskan travels, entrepreneur Lloyd Nelson patented a pack in 1922 that could be worn across the upper back with a frame for added support. In 1938, Gerry Outdoors improved on the concept by adding zippered compartments that made it easier to fetch supplies while rock climbing. In 1967, the Gerry Teardrop Backpack innovated again by using nylon, a far more durable and weather-resistant material than canvas.

None of these products were created with students in mind. Their target audience was the outdoorsman, the roaming amateur explorers who enjoyed hiking, camping, and climbing. The growth of that industry paved the way for JanSport, co-founded by Skip Yowell and Murray and Jan Pletz in 1967. (Jan had the company named after her because she agreed to help sew some of their early products.)

Operating out of a Seattle transmission shop owned by Yowell’s uncle, JanSport quickly gained traction as a supplier that paid attention to the finer details. When Yowell heard that customers wanted a loop to hang an ice axe from, he added one. When they asked for a day pack made especially for dogs, he made them. His dialogue with customers allowed JanSport to react quickly to the needs of the market.

“Skip had this incredible personality,” Winnie Yowell, Skip’s widow, tells Mental Floss. “He made you feel like you were his best friend, that you had known him forever.”

That comradery was on display in 1972, when Yowell paid a visit to the University of Washington’s campus bookstore and spoke with manager Ed Bergan. With the bookstore connected to an athletics shop that sold skiing and other outdoor equipment, Bergan noticed that students would go pick up their textbooks and then head for the JanSport day pack display almost immediately.

“It was like a turnstile,” says Mothersbaugh, who worked for Bergan. “Kids would buy books and then look for something to carry them in.” Unlike some of the sunnier campuses on the west coast, books needed protection from the ever-present Seattle rain; a large number of students also biked around campus and needed a place to store their books so they could keep their hands on the handlebar.

Bergan mentioned this untapped market to Yowell and suggested a key addition: Since the packs were being used for heavy books, having some added support on the bottom would be beneficial. The reinforced bottom could carry the weight and resist water if it was put down on wet pavement.

Yowell, who had made a practice of listening to customers, agreed. He returned to JanSport and began producing day packs that had vinyl (and later leather) bottoms and jam-proof zippers. He sent them along to Bergan, who reported that they were practically flying off the shelves.

“It was a new way to carry things,” Mothersbaugh says. “I think kids would see other kids with one and it caught on. I know we sold a lot of them.”

Bergan was so impressed by the response that he began telling his colleagues at other campus bookstores in the Pacific Northwest about JanSport and its virtually indestructible backpacks, which Yowell would later dub the SuperBreak. A revolution was taking place—but it would be a few more years before it became a national phenomenon.

A 1984 L.L. Bean catalog page featuring the Book Pack
Courtesy of Andy Gilchrist

At the time JanSport’s book pack exploded, the company had a regional footprint. Students on the East Coast in the 1970s and early 1980s weren’t yet aware of the alternative use for the bags, and it was often left up to enterprising parents to improvise school sacks for their children. In 1980, syndicated arts and crafts columnists Ed and Stevie Baldwin offered instructions for a DIY backpack by mail order. The bags were made from jeans and recycled waistbands. For anyone willing to take up the task for themselves, the Baldwins sold the pattern for $3.95.

Of course, college students were less likely to have their parents sewing backpacks for them. That’s probably one reason why a Harvard law school enrollee wrote to Ned Kitchel in 1981. Kitchel, who was the head of product development for L.L. Bean's outdoor equipment category from 1976 to 1991, remembers the correspondence well. “The guy had ordered the first nylon day pack we had introduced to the line,” Kitchel tells Mental Floss. “It was intended for hiking. He said he liked it but that his law books poked a hole in the bottom and could we please make one to hold them.”

Kitchel thought that made sense. Not long after, he ran into a seamstress named Marcia Briggs at a Las Vegas trade show. Briggs was co-owner of Caribou Mountaineering and had already toyed with the idea of adopting a day pack for school use. “I asked if they [Caribou] could do anything and she pulled one right off the shelf,” Kitchel says. “With a few alterations, that became the L.L. Bean Book Pack.”

At the time, there was a crucial difference in reach between JanSport and L.L. Bean. JanSport acted as a wholesaler, dealing with retailers. Bean was a catalog business, selling directly to the consumer. (Without the middle man, their packs sold for $25 compared to JanSport’s $30 to $40 models.) They didn’t need to convince store owners a student-oriented pack was a good idea—they just added it to their pages. “The first year [1982], we sold maybe 10,000 of them,” Kitchel says. “The next year, 50,000. Then 100,000. The numbers were astonishing.”

The Bean Book Pack made some crucial additions to the student book-toting experience. Briggs designed a seamless bottom using a continuous piece of fabric, making it much more resistant to having sharp book corners poking at the sides. Compartments were added so supplies like pencils and rulers could be easily retrieved. Later, Kitchel would add reflective stripes to the exterior so kids would be visible in low light. That feature appealed to parents, who browsed the catalog and then ordered Book Packs for their children.

By 1984, newspapers were taking note of the trend spreading everywhere from kindergarten to universities. Across the country, students were lugging packs made specifically for their needs. Packs from JanSport, L.L. Bean, and a handful of other brands like Eastpak and Trager came in an assortment of colors, including pink and camouflage. Licensed packs featuring ALF, Mickey Mouse, and Barbie grew popular with younger backpackers. Promotional giveaways used them as a way to grab attention. (Send in two Chips Ahoy! proof of purchase seals along with $6.95 for a Chips Ahoy! backpack.) If you were carrying books by hand, you were missing a sea change in education. Backpacks had arrived.

A child with a backpack walks down a flight of stairs
woodleywonderworks, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In terms of brand recognition, not a whole lot has changed since backpacks became a staple of school lockers in the ‘80s. Kids, fiercely loyal to brands, still favor JanSport and L.L. Bean, along with other packs made by VF, the parent company currently behind JanSport.

“At least on the east coast, you can’t walk on a campus and not see L.L. Bean backpacks everywhere,” Kitchel says. Of Yowell, who conquered the other coast, Kitchel echoes the sentiments of most everyone who met him prior to his death in 2012. “He’s one of the classiest guys I ever knew.”

Kitchel estimates that L.L. Bean sold $500 million in packs since 1982. JanSport had tallied 25 million SuperBreak packs between 1979 and 2007.

With digital learning tools on the rise, some outlets are predicting a dip in backpack sales as more classes are moving coursework online. Yet 2014 was a record high for backpack sales, with 174 million sold. Students may no longer be weighed down with 30 pounds of paper, but there’s still a need to pad and protect tablets, headphones, and other learning accessories. There’s also the matter of aesthetics: A student’s choice of color, shape, and features in a backpack can help broadcast their personality to a campus full of strangers. That's not likely to go out of style anytime soon.

“I think Skip realized where the future was going to be,” Winnie Yowell says. “The goal was always to be cool and fun, and that was Skip’s thing.”

Additional Sources: The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder & Other Mountains: How JanSport Makes It Happen.

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