“Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped now with man’s physical means to express itself, and with the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed.” ~Charles Baudelaire
“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childhood days, recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth, and transport the traveler back to his own fireside and quiet home!” ~Charles Dickens
We may be shopping for the children in our lives, reminiscing about the holidays of our youth, or analyzing our portfolios, hoping that the decision to invest in Barbie instead of G.I. Joe this season turns out to have been the right one; whatever the case may be, whether or not they are a part of our daily lives, the December holiday season is upon us. This is the time of year when toys find themselves at center stage. artes fine arts magazine
Gifted by third generation furniture manufacturer, Louis J. Buehler, in 1999, just one year before he died, the Hoyt’s toy collection dates from the early 1900’s. Buehler’s grandfather, Gottlieb, had been born in Germany in 1857 where he trained as a carpenter. He emigrated to the US in 1881, bringing his woodworking skills with him, eventually settling in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he built a prosperous career making furniture. Louis succeeded him in the family business.
Left: Loius Buehler (c), with father (l) and grandfather, Gottlieb (r). c. 1920
While Louis never married or had any children of his own, he obviously cherished his possessions because, while he was still alive, he gifted a few important pieces to his nieces and nephews only to have them sell the items, which disappointed Buehler enough that he decided to give his estate to museums. Having been involved with museums throughout his life, he understood their continuous need for money, so along with his childhood treasures, furniture and art, he included The Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts in a trust providing annual support for display of the collections.
Some of the most noteworthy items include at least 1000 small lead figures. Some of the figures are animals and many are people, some British, German, Japanese, and American. There is a variety of turn of the century wind ups, most of which are still in working order, and a collection of at least a dozen board games that are among the few items which are not often shown.
Regularly on display in the Period House is a collection of Little Folks magazines, an educational board, a homemade doll house, built by his father, and a model of Buehler’s own house, which he built himself as a child. There is a tin tea set, a viewfinder with several slides, loads of Matchbox cars, many still in the original boxes, and a number of Steiff pieces. The Steiff bears are protected by a glass case, and the smaller of the two is most unique, with a removable head that reveals a glass vile within the cavity of the bear’s body, meant to hold candy.
The toys themselves speak volumes about the material culture of childhood, a trending theme in today’s fine art galleries. They also remind us of what was happening in the areas of art, industry, science, and social progress during a previous age. Significant changes were occurring in the world of art and design during Buehler’s childhood, including a reconsideration of who sets artistic standards, and how art should be shared with the public. He would have witnessed the industrialization of America, which provided much of the subject matter for the realist movement. It was a new era, one of mass production, and popular culture grew to be a profitable national product. Tickets for a twelve-day cruise could be purchased for roughly $60, and the Ziegfeld girls earned $75 per week (Whitley 2008).
It seems fitting for Buehler’s collection, which includes such a charming group of tin toys, to have made its home in New Castle, Pennsylvania, which was known as the tin plate capital of the world in the early 1900’s, boasting the largest tin plate mill in America at that time.
Production of tin toys began in the mid 1800’s as an inexpensive alternative to wooden toys. Initially they were hand painted, until a process known as “offset lithography” began being used to print designs on flat tinplate, which was then shaped using dies and assembled with tabs. Leading tin toy manufacturer Ernst Paul Lehmann, of Germany, produced original, high quality designs, but eventually their proliferation tapered off in the U.S., when American manufacturers like Louis Marx and Company, amid post-World War I anti-German sentiment, tapped into a newly discovered supply of tin ore in Illinois.
Again, war had an impact on tin toys, when the need for raw materials during World War II, halted production altogether; afterwards, under the Marshall Plan, Japan took over “all of the low profit, high labor manufacturing and the U.S. companies could sell the imported tin toy product. It worked better than expected, and Japan became a tin toy manufacturing force until the end of the 1950’s…In the 1960’s, cheaper plastic and new government safety regulations ended the reign of tin toys” (Konter 2010).
Perhaps the most remarkable piece on display at the Hoyt is a 1908 Lehmann Halloh Motorcycle, a ‘Gyro-Action’ mechanical tin toy, featuring rubber-coated wheels and a young male rider, clad with tall red socks, white skull cap, and blue jacket. The piece is in excellent condition, valued at roughly $2,900.00, with working gears and minimal wear. Another notable tin toy, a 1913 Lehmann Tut Tut No. 490, wind-up automobile in very good condition, features a red German eagle on the side and a driver blowing a horn (see above). This piece would likely sell for about $700 at auction. Comparatively, a red Louis Marx & Co. No. 7 Coo Coo Car tin wind up in somewhat better condition is worth slightly less.
While some certainly do it for the money, according to toy expert Robert Skingle, of Skingle Antiques, many collectors enjoy antique toys for a combination of two other reasons–the nostalgic sentiment that they convey, and the artistic quality of the toys’ design, all the way down to the graphics on the original packaging. From Japan in the 1930’s, a blond-haired, blue-eyed My Friend clockwork celluloid-and-metal girl swimmer wears a red bathing suit, and rotates her arms in a freestyle swim stroke. Its original box, decorated with red seagulls flying above the ocean upon which a sailboat can be seen in the distance, and a swimmer who appears to be soaring with them, features the Kuramochi trademark, CK. The Hoyt takes great pride in having this rare childhood plaything, complete with the original box, among those on display.
Among the most charismatic toys in the Hoyt’s collection is a 1930’s wind up tin toy tribal figure riding atop an alligator, complete with original string reins, putting its value at approximately $250. A variety of wind ups are covered with soft fur, including an endearing monkey called Jolly Jacko who gazes into a pink hand mirror while combing his hair. He is joined by Stinky the Skunk, who hops when wound, wearing around his neck the original red ribbon with comical tag that reads ‘Caution,’ and Hiking Bear, who carries a red walking stick and, naturally, hikes.
Three large and lovely painted wooden boats, despite being safely perched on wooden stands, appear as if they are ready to set sail down a small and winding creek in a young child’s back yard. A popular pastime, Buehler and his grandfather built their own working sailboats, some of which were motorized. The open deck of one boat in particular features exquisite detail, including eight portholes, a life buoy, three fabric flags, a red and white striped canopy with a blue party light suspended beneath it, movable search light and throttle, spinning metal propeller, and an anchor whose tiny chain slinks gracefully in and out of a hole in the bow. The boat is wired so that, at one time, the spot light and a light inside the cabin would illuminate.
Of all the toys in the collection, the board games suggest, most clearly, the daily thoughts, actions, and expectations of young children during the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps this is because they implicitly require the participation of more than one child, and therefore one can imagine the interaction–including bits of conversation and mannerisms–that certainly played out among the living, breathing members of an older generation when it was young. It could be that the games inspire an adult viewer’s imagination more so than the individual toys, which primarily elicit nostalgic sensations; this, presumably, would not be the case for young visitors of the Hoyt, who would, hypothetically, reach for the wind ups or boats first.
The selection of games includes The Standard Radio Game, King Kong Oriental Checkers by Sam Gabriel & Sons Co., NY, and All Star Comics Playing Card Game by King Features Syndicate, 1934. Two exceptionally interesting games in the collection are the 1935 Gilbert Electric Eye, and the Playbox. Best known, perhaps, for its Erector Sets, The Gilbert Company produced a variety of scientific toys that tell of the technology of the day. Called ‘an electric marvel,’ this photoelectric device was surely a thing of wonder for the few affluent young boys whose families could afford such a cutting-edge plaything. The detailed instruction manual accompanying the Electric Eye proclaims its ability to turn on lights and radios, operate a burglar alarm, start and stop electric trains, and ring the door bell—all from a distance.
The set requires batteries, including a 22 volt dry cell, and two ‘C’ cells in the Power Pack to operate the low voltage relay. The switch linking the low voltage (sensitive) relay and the operating (power) relay is a primitive form of amplification. The Electric Eye is just one of the Gilbert company’s many products that targeted, through focused advertising campaigns, young boys who dreamed of adult achievement (“My Experience…”). To today’s children, this game would still appear to be scientifically challenging, but to an adult, it is the equivalent of, perhaps, a rotary telephone.
The Playbox, an educational toy from the early 1900’s produced by the Parents Association in Pleasant Hill, Ohio, claims to teach and drill children on a long list of skills, both academic and social, including Arithmetic, Astronomy, Botany, Geography, Ambition, Good Manners, Self-Control, and Tidiness. The sturdy metal box houses nearly 80 individual game pieces, including dominoes, checkers, ten-pins, marbles, a jointed ruler, and four brightly colored metal Versatilla Men, above which is written, ‘A place for everything and everything in its place.’ The most endearing feature of the Playbox is the black-and-white photo on the inside of the lid wherein several children, wearing tall white socks and Mary Janes, play a game together with pieces set atop a chair on the rug in front of a fireplace.
That photo, while not related to the Buehler household, appears as if it could have been taken just down the hall from where these items are displayed; The Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts boasts a unique setting in which the period opulence and grandeur subtly blend with a sense of intimacy and comfort. This atmosphere somehow transcends the years which have passed since the mansion was occupied as a residence. So while the vintage toy collection displayed there may be received in different ways by children and adults, the glimpse into the past, through the lens of childhood trifles, is sure to engender pleasant feelings for all.
Above: The Buehler homestead (l) and a model of the house, built by Louis Buehler as a child (r), in the collection of the museum.
Certainly, those with an interest in vintage toys should plan to visit the Hoyt, where an impressive permanent art collection and variety of seasonal exhibits, as well as the beauty of the facility itself, make for a satisfying museum experience.
By Autumn Miller, Contributing Writer
Visit the Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts collection at www.hoytartcenter.org
Konter, Stanley. Tin Toy History. Retrieved Nov. 13, 2011 from VirtualBargains.com.
My Experience with Gilbert Science Sets. Lindy Week Review. Retrieved Nov. 13, 2011 from Jitterbuzz.com
Skingle, Robert. Telephone interview. 15 Nov. 2011.
Whitley, Peggy. ‘1910-1919.’ American Cultural History. Lone Star College-Kingwood Library, 1999. Web. 7 Feb. 2011.
Above: Louis Marx & Co. No.7 Coo Coo Car (c. 1920)