A Peek Inside Santa’s Sack: Vintage Cast Iron Toys At The D’Amour Museum
By Frances McQueeney-Jones Mascolo
SPRINGFIELD, MASS. — Cast iron toys have delighted generations of children and adult children since the first examples appeared in the late Nineteenth Century. This season they charm visitors to the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts at the Springfield Museums.
The D’Amour holds a collection of early examples by Arcade, Hubley and Kenton that feature horse-drawn vehicles, trains, firefighting apparatus, automobiles, trucks, cars and aircraft, as well as toy stoves and mechanical banks, even cap guns. The toys on display were loaned by the Smithsonian Institution to the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts shortly after the museum opened in 1933. Years later, the Smithsonian Institution agreed to extend the loan and they are now on permanent loan to the museums.
The examples are highly accurate likenesses of vehicles and other objects in common use at the time of manufacture. They were made at foundries by sand casting. A pattern generally made from brass or bronze was placed in a casting frame packed tightly with casting sand or foundry sand. When the pattern was removed, a hollow impression of the pattern remained. Each mold required two frames, one for the top of the model and the other for the bottom, into which molten iron was poured.
When the toy cooled, a base coat was applied. They were then hand painted and finished, making each unique. Cast iron toys were, for the most part, a pleasurable offshoot of Nineteenth Century industry. They were made from the late 1800s until World War II, when the wartime need for metal for munitions caused manufacturers to use die-cast zinc alloy molding or to cease toy production altogether. Most Nineteenth Century toy manufacturers began as makers of hardware or industrial products.
“A Peek Inside Santa’s Sack” begins at home — with a group of cast iron toy stoves. Arcade was founded in 1885 in Freeport, Ill., to produce items like a cork extractor and screen door hinges, coffee mills and other small hardware objects. It produced a miniature coffee mill that turned the company to making animal banks and toy stoves, automobiles, farm equipment and their most popular toy, the Chicago Yellow Cab, an example of which is on view.
While Arcade made stoves in greater numbers, Hubley, established in Lancaster, Penn., in 1894, offered them in greater variety and size. Bank Teller John E. Hubley began making toys for his children in his basement. He later built a foundry to produce toy cast iron carriages, some with clockwork mechanisms. Subsequent directors produced horse-drawn toys, then cap guns, airplanes, mechanical banks and branded toys like Maytag washing machines, Ford cars, even an Old Dutch Cleanser toy.
The Kenton, Ohio, company known first as the Kenton Lock Manufacturing Company in 1890, created a dandy stove, the Superior, a circa 1920 example of which is on view. It was made with a single burner cooktop and an oven that burned real gas, enabling the child to cook alongside mother, over an open flame. By contrast, Kenner’s Easy Bake oven introduced in 1963 used a light bulb to simulate heat; today’s examples use a heating element. Other Kenton stoves on view are the Royal stove, the Favorite stove and a gas stove. They are displayed with a Hubley gray-green Eagle gas stove and an OK stove.
Fire and the control of it was essential in early America when houses were constructed of wood, and in urban areas, close together. First came the bucket brigades, then hose companies and later developments brought water to the fireground more efficiently. The sounds of galloping horses, bells and whistles and later sirens of the fire company have always attracted children, and toy manufacturers were quick to add firefighting and other emergency apparatus to their product lines.
The firefighting pieces on view in “A Peek Inside Santa’s Sack” are all horse-drawn vehicles. The earliest is a fire patrol wagon made around 1914 by an unknown maker. Other examples are a hook and ladder toy from about 1920, a fire wagon, a fire engine truck, a circa 1920 pumper. A horse-drawn ambulance and a horse-drawn police wagon are also on view.
As the “iron horse” made its way across the United States, cast iron toy trains appeared in miniature for the pleasure of children and adults. Most of the examples in this exhibition were made by Kenton. Early examples were powered by steam; later, electricity was the driver. The trains on view include three steam locomotives, two of which were made by Kenton; a Kenton locomotive tender car and two Kenton coal cars, one from about 1920; two cabooses and a cattle car. There are also two Erie Railroad passenger cars.
Inventor Joshua Lionel Cowen founded his toy train company in 1900 in New York City. His early examples were powered by wet-cell batteries and then later by electricity.
Other Nineteenth Century childhood delights relate to the ice trade, which gave rise to the manufacture of the horse- (or mule-) drawn ice wagons like those used for commercial and domestic distribution of the product. Frederic Tudor of Boston began the harvesting, transport and distribution of ice in 1805. Ice facilitated greater distribution of fruits and vegetables, meat and fruit, brewery products and, of course, ice cream. A polar ice wagon is on view alongside a Kenton tractor and ice wagon, two Kenton ice trucks from the 1920s, another from the 1930s and still another truck with a driver.
From the 1830s to 1900, Connecticut was the most prodigious center of toy manufacture. E.R. Ives & Company began operation in Plymouth in 1868 and moved to Bridgeport two years later. Ives advertised “Happy Toys Make Happy Boys.” Ives made moveable tin plate figures and cast iron cars but was most well-known for its trains, windup and electrified examples. The company, which introduced O-gauge track, produced high-quality toys until 1929 when it went bankrupt and Lionel took it over.
Cromwell was a center of cast iron manufacture, and the 1843 J&E Stevens Co. began as a hardware manufacturer with the production of a few cast iron toys. Such was the success of the toys that the company modified its business plan and around the time of its introduction of the fire cracker pistol, became the largest US manufacturer of cast iron toys. Stevens made toy cannons, locomotives and whistling tops; the company marketed toy stoves, furniture and cutlery to girls. In 1869, Stevens made its first cast iron mechanical bank, a monkey that popped out of a building. The company ultimately made more than 300 different kinds of mechanical banks. By 1828 production was limited to the manufacture of cap pistols.
Forestville clockmaker George W. Brown introduced clockwork mechanisms to tin toys around 1850.
The Stevens & Brown Manufacturing Company began making toys in Cromwell in 1869. (The Stevens was Elisha, formerly of J&E Stevens.) The company made toys of tin or Britannia (a tin, copper and antimony alloy) that included a miniature steam locomotive. It ended production in 1880.
In East Haven, the Gong Bell Manufacturing Company began operation in 1866, producing cast iron bell pull toys. They comprised a platform supporting figures that moved when the wheels turned, causing the bell to ring. Gong Bell also made the first foot bell used on automobiles. A.S Gilbert made Erector sets in New Haven beginning in 1913.
The Weeden Manufacturing Company in New Bedford, Mass., began by making oil lamp burners and then tin plate items and by 1884 was producing cast iron toy steam engines with upright boilers powered by wood alcohol or, alternatively, kerosene or heating oil and alcohol. In the 1920s, some engines had electric heat.
“A Peek Inside Santa’s Sack: Vintage Cast Iron Toys” remains on view through January 5 at the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts at 21 Edwards Street. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 am to 5 pm. For information, 800-625-7738 or www.springfieldmuseums.org.