Thursday, August 6, 2020

1930s Toys: Materials and Worksmanship

How did toys and comics change during the Great Depression? I interviewed toy collector and inventor Mel Birnkrant. Over the next few days, I'll share his answers. 

Question 1: If you compare toys from the 1920s to toys of the 1930s, was there a noticeable change in materials or workmanship? 

Mel Birnkrant says: "The materials and workmanship of toys changed dramatically during that period of time. There were several factors at play. The first was country of origin. Hand in hand with that was the changing materials from which the toys were made. 

"But most importantly, to understand toy history, one must see it as an ongoing quest for new materials, with which to render and manufacture objects in 3D.
"Throughout the first quarter of the 20th Century, most toys were made in Germany. German toys were often made of wood. Hand carving was commonplace and considered manufacturing. This early wooden Mickey brush holder was “Handufactured,” (a term I just made up,) in Germany.

"Cast iron was also used worldwide to render objects that could be duplicated in quantity. Although cast iron toys were durable, they were also extremely heavy. This cast iron Andy Gump car, made in the 1920s is considered a classic.
"Throughout several centuries, dolls were mostly cast in bisque, and most of these were made in Germany. Heavy and easily breakable, bisque was then the only means by which one could replicate a realistic face. Some doll collectors would maintain that this is still true today. This Rose O’Neil Kewpie is an exquisite example of the lifelike delicacy that German bisque achieved.

"Tin toys were another means by which one could render objects in 3D. Tin imposed a stylized look of its own. This Barney Google windup toy is a good example of that principal. The Image is transformed and enhanced by the limitations of the tin medium to, perhaps unintentionally, achieve a stylized elegance. To see this toy as a stunning sculpture, visualize it twelve feet tall.
"Throughout the first quarter of the 20th century, Germany was to the toy industry what Hong Kong is today. Then, in the early 1930s, Japan stepped onto the stage, and with them came a new material, celluloid. Suddenly, there was a cheaper, lighter means to render images in 3D. 

This skating Mickey is an excellent example of the beauty and perfection that celluloid could achieve.

"Although, this new material could render almost any image with newfound fidelity, it also developed a look and language of its own that was totally unique, and highly Geometric. Celluloid was also Depression friendly. Unlike toys made of wood, bisque and cast iron, toys made of celluloid were lightweight and cheap.
"After the Second World War, celluloid which was extremely flammable was deemed illegal, and overnight replaced by the ever-growing list of modern plastics we know today.

"Throughout these years, toys were also made in the USA. Early in the 1930s, new materials were introduced here. Dolls might now be made of rubber and also of a paste like material, called composition. Each of these new materials enabled a unique look that altered the appearance of the original subject matter, in some instances for the better. 

"In my humble opinion, the entire series of composition and wood jointed dolls, created by doll maker, Joseph Callus were always exquisite sculptures. The restrictions of this medium lent a new dimension to the comic characters it portrayed.
"Here is an exquisite pair of composition jointed dolls by Joseph Callus. They represent Betty Boop and her then boyfriend Bimbo, at the peak of their refinement. This particular Betty Boop doll was originally owned by Max Fleisher.

"The Second World War put an end to these visually exciting playthings. And after the war, toys were never quite the same, or quite as great. Wartime toys were often awful, mostly made of paper. And what few toys there were, were made entirely in the USA. 
Here we see a cardboard Lionel train. Much to my disappointment, Santa brought me one of these in 1943.
Tomorrow: Changes in Imagery


Pierre Fontaine said...

It's a pity that Mr. Birnkrant didn't care for his paper train set. I understand that someone who is used to "composite", "celluloid" or tin toys could easily be disappointed in something made of paper.

I've been completely fascinated by paper toys for years. It's a tradition that can still be found in many European countries. These toys are really more like model kits, to be cut out and put together with glue but the shear variety of subject matter that could be reproduced in paper is remarkable. Yes, they are easily breakable but also surprisingly durable if handled with care.

A search for "paper models" on google, or Amazon or eBay will reveal everything from Star Wars models, toy theaters, cars and plans and architectural models. I've designed paper models for years to make nearly anything I can't find otherwise.

TKraft Art + Interiors said...

❤️ Mel & Eunice

Bob said...

Neat post on the history of toy materials and craftsmanship, James. I didn't know of paper toys (other than some Cracker Jack prizes!). Toy dinosaurs also vary considerably in quality and price. The best are made of a sort of rubbery plastic which can be molded to accurate shapes, then finished in detail. Nearly all are made in China regardless of where the toy company is headquartered. Unlike model railroads, dino toys are rarely made to a specific scale, making it hard to put several together and make a realistic scene. I can't find it right now yet I believe you have mentioned that toy dinos can serve as a drawing reference in a pinch -- that's what we use on the OMB.

Judy P. said...

So interesting to hear of the changes due to time, of toy creation. You are right, each material gave its own unique charm and vintage 'look'. Makes me think how our paints and surfaces should be better considered for painting goals.
I love celluloid toys, and have a couple. But most plastics just don't do it for me- when I was a girl I received a plastic baby doll, and the strong smell of that material was a real turn-off.

Inkjetcanvas said...

Fascinating! As a sculptor working mostly in digital for 3D printing, it’s so interesting to see where we came from as toy makers. Can’t wait for the next one. Thanks for sharing!

Mel Birnkrant said...

Hi Pierre, At six years old my tastes were unsophisticated and thus, like most children my age, my heart was set on the “real thing” a genuine Lionel electric train. I was not alone in being disappointed in 1943. No kid in the USA got an electric Lionel train that year. The metal that would have been required was used to fight the War. Nonetheless, the Lionel company attempted to do the next best thing, as the box clearly states, this was the Official “Lionel Wartime Freight Train, ready to assemble.” it came with wooden axels.

By the way, one Christmas when the War was over, Santa surprised me with the Fabulous freight train of my dreams. It had everything from smoke to whistle. It even had a trackside building with a giant watchman hiding inside. He popped out and waved a lantern every time the train chugged by.

That train, the ultimate Christmas present, along with the delirious joy it brought me, is now a fading memory, buried by the sands of time. Ironically, on a shelf down in the cellar, I still have a Lionel Wartime Freight Train, made out of die-cut cardboard, not that very one. This one is a replacement I acquired when I was all grown up. This one is complete and still unpunched.

Pierre Fontaine said...

Hi Mel...thank you for your story and clarification. I'm 57 years old so I'm most definitely a post-war baby but I remember how thrilled we were when we got our first Lionel Train set, also with the watchman hiding inside. I don't remember what scale it was but in my hands as a child, it seemed large though. The engine was metal but the cars were plastic but the engine was magical to us...heavy and complicated and intricate.

My father always made things from wood and cardboard, everything from paper theaters, dioramas, and other magical things and I picked up that interest, eventually settling on mostly cardboard since it was always accessible. My father, who worked in a textile mill, would bring home these beautiful sheets of cardboard a couple times a year and it was the perfect medium to build whatever I wanted. This grew into a fascination with collecting all things, models, theaters etc.

James Gurney said...

Pierre, Yes, some of Mel's greatest treasures are paper toys, which he talks about on some of the videos that Eric Millen and I have made of his collection. This URL will take you to a page about those YouTube videos: