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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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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Wise Quacks: A History of the Rubber Duck
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In the middle of a raging storm in 1992, a cargo ship carrying a huge assortment of vinyl toys tipped over. Descending into the Pacific were nearly 29,000 tub playthings, including untold thousands of rubber ducks. Bobbing and drifting, the tiny yellow birds took weeks, months, and years to wash ashore in Hawaii, Maine, Seattle, and other far-flung locations. Their journeys were able to tell oceanographers crucial information about waves, currents, and seasonal changes—what one journalist dubbed “the conveyor belt” of the sea.

The humble little rubber duck had, once again, exceeded expectations.


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Aside from soap, shampoo, and towels, there may be no more pervasive an item in a kid-occupied bathtub than the rubber duck, a generic aquatic toy that usually squeaks, sometimes spits water, and can be teethed upon without incident.

The ducks had their origins in the mid-1800s, when rubber manufacturing began to gain ground. Out of the many animals crafted, they were the most native to water and broke away from the pack. Families who used to make bathing a weekly event prior to Sunday church sessions would entice children to submerge themselves in the murky tubs with a duck, some of which didn’t float. They were intended as chew toys.

In 1933, a latex supplier licensed a series of Disney characters and made inexpensive bath floaters: The most popular were Donald and Donna Duck. While Disney’s brand recognition helped, companies looking to mass-market cheap ducks didn’t want to depend on a license. Sculptor Peter Ganine is believed to have been the now-familiar generic duck’s primary designer, patenting a toy in 1949 for a period of 14 years. Ganine reportedly sold over 50 million of them.

By the early 1960s, the vinyl ducks were free from patent restriction and became a bathroom fixture. They were cheaply made, cheaply acquired, and a soothing presence for children with apprehensions about being dipped into water. Any hydrophobia was eased by the bright yellow duck, who didn’t appear to have a care in the world.

On February 25, 1970, rubber ducks got their biggest break yet. On the first season of Sesame Street, Ernie splashed in a tub while singing an ode to his maritime companion:

Rubber Duckie, you’re the one

You make bath time lots of fun

Rubber Duckie, I’m awfully fond of you

Rubber Duckie, joy of joys

When I squeeze you, you make noise

Rubber Duckie, you’re my very best friend, it’s true

The song went on to sell over 1 million copies as a single and has been included in well over 21 different Sesame Street compilation albums. The image of Ernie playing with the duck was licensed for T-shirts, storybooks, and other merchandise that further endeared the ducks to child-occupied households.

The duck has since undergone some minor advancements. Some, molded to resemble celebrities or athletes, are a popular gift or marketing tool; others are sculpted to giant-sized proportions to bob in lakes during summer festivals. And while the toys now come in $99, Bluetooth-enabled versions, it was the classic yellow duck that made it in 2013 into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Additional Sources:
“Rubber Ducks and Their Significance in Contemporary American Culture,” The Journal of American Culture, Volume 29, Number 1 [PDF].

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