Published: May 8, 2007
Toys originally made to entertain and educate boys and girls are now the “toys” of collectors, with values that would astonish the original maker. The Wilton Historical Society’s current exhibit, “Made In Connecticut: Toys For American Kids,” on view at the Wilton Heritage Museum until July 15, 2007, is designed to entertain the collector and to educate those interested in what American kids played with before plastics and electronics.
Conversations with the collectors and the opportunity for “show & tell” and identification of toys brought in will take place at the museum on June 24 and July 1.
“In early America, most children had to make do with playthings made of material close at hand,” said Marilyn Gould, museum director. “While the few wealthy families brought to the new world fashionable dolls, stylish dollhouses, silver rattles, hobby horses and toy soldiers, the vast majority of children had the simplest of toys, made at home. Entertainment was not the primary goal, for most ‘toys’ had the aim of educating and enforcing gender roles and differences.”
In the mid-Nineteenth Century, American toymaking, spurred by the industrialization that occurred in the towns of central Connecticut, served as the breeding ground for the concept of mass production and standardization and forever changed America, making goods affordable for middle class families.
The Wilton exhibit begins with a selection of Connecticut-made clocks and tinware. Eli Terry has been called the man who transformed clockmaking from hand craftsmanship to a fledgling factory system, mass-producing products with interchangeable parts. Terry was an innovative pioneer in the development of less expensive shelf clocks for the middle class. Brass movements truly democratized clock ownership and then were used to mechanize toys.
Clockwork toys included in the exhibition illustrate the relationship between clockmaking, the tin business and the fledgling domestic toy industry. A clock by George Brown serves as a catalyst for this progression. A clockmaker from 1845 to 1855, Brown turned to his first love, toys, about 1855. He is credited with manufacturing the first clockwork toy train in America in 1856.
Brown’s tin toys are among the most admired today. Three of his original watercolor sketches, along with the toys they represent, are included in the exhibition. Other Connecticut toymakers, Merriam and Hull & Stafford, also made similar painted tin toys in the 1870s and 1880s. Precise attribution is difficult today, but the large assemblage displayed is especially charming.
Brown and Elisha Stevens joined forces for more than a decade, creating iconic toys highly valued today such as the clockwork “perambulators.” Also of interest in the exhibit are the three rare “walking dolls” patented by Enoch Rice Morrison in 1856.
Other toymakers featured are J.&E. Stevens of Cromwell, specialists in cast iron toys and mechanical and still banks and toy steam engines. The bell toymakers of East Hampton, the Gong Bell Company, N.N. Hill and Watrous made toys with pleasant chimes to appeal to young children. Many are on view. A.C. Gilbert of New Haven, a Yale graduate with an inventive mind, is best remembered by Mysto Magic and Erector Sets, but actually created many more games and toys, primarily for boys.
The state’s most famous toy company was Ives, Blakeslee, often known simply as “Ives” of Bridgeport. Their clockwork toys of the 1870s on exhibit include the rare “Smoking General Grant,” Old Black Joe walking toy, a clockwork dancer and a clockwork rowboat. Several rare Secor toys are included, such as the clockwork Piano Player and American Songster. Ives was well known for fire toys and trains, and dozens of trains are on view at the Wilton Heritage Museum.
During the Twentieth Century, many small Connecticut companies continued to make affordable toys and games, including Wiffle® balls (Shelton) and Legos (Enfield), and, of course, everyone remembers that Frisbees originated when Yale students tossed around Frisbee pie tins. Johnny Gruelle wrote several Raggedy Ann and Andy books while a Wilton resident, so the exhibition includes many of these favorite cloth dolls.
It may be surprising to realize that the small state of Connecticut played such a huge role in early industrialization and to understand the connection between the ingenious Nineteenth Century clockmakers and the development of a significant toy industry. The Wilton exhibit, with nearly 300 toys on loan from private collectors from nine states, offers an unusual opportunity to see some rare and seldom seen objects in a single museum exhibit.
The Wilton Heritage Museum is at 224 Danbury Road. For information, 203-762-7257 or www.wiltonhistorical.org .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm