Chester Martin Remembers Children's Toys Through The Years

Monday, December 19, 2016 - by Chester Martin
Sharon Martin (McLain) and new Christmas dolls, about 1970
Sharon Martin (McLain) and new Christmas dolls, about 1970

When I was very, very young my mom would occasionally take me on the train from Terminal Station (now the Chattanooga Choo Choo) to Knoxville, and on to New Market, Tennessee, to visit her oldest aunt. That would be Aunt Eliza Smith Wyrick. Aunt Eliza lived in a really pleasant country house, spacious and airy - at least at the times of year when we visited. One of her daughters married a local doctor and lived nearby.The room which my mom and I shared had one of those old beds that looked like a mountain to small children.

Aunt Eliza's own children were long since married and moved away, leaving only such choice items (for me) as some of their ancient toys. As grandchildren and great-grandchildren also visited their mamaw, those old toys still got a lot of use.

The toy I was most attracted to was a small replica of an ancient automobile. Heavy as lead, it was made out of cast-iron. And that is how a lot of old toys were in those days - very heavy and clunky. That particular toy car of Aunt Eliza's had a string attached to its front bumper so it could be pulled about. No wind-up mechanism made it go, it was just a simple 'pull toy'.

Before first grade my parents also gave me a similar toy - similar only by the fact it was made out of cast-iron. That was a miniature steam shovel - a really fascinating item for little boys of the day. Once or twice my dad took me to a place where he knew that a REAL one of those monstrous machines was working - somewhere on the north side of Ringgold Road in East Ridge. Seeing a REAL steam shovel at work, biting gigantic mouthfuls of red-clay dirt out of a hillside simply served to intensify the connection between me and my toy. My toy was large enough that a child of 4 or 5 could sit on it and make the shovel part work, at least to some limited degree. The other kids in the neighborhood became very interested in that new toy, and it was in constant demand. I couldn't deny them the privilege of playing with it, especially since it appeared to be indestructible. It wasn't! Because, one sad day I found it abandoned - and broken. That killed my soul!

Such cast-iron toys fell out of favor for that very reason: besides being too heavy they were also highly breakable. More modern toys were then made out of steel, whose vulnerability lay mainly in its bendability. Steel never broke, but could definitely be bent out of shape when forced, or it could rust. Still, it was a great improvement over the much-heavier and brittle cast-iron. I still have a miniature printing press from a few years later which was made out of steel, and remains in perfect shape. Although sold as a toy, it had real moveable type and could actually print small 3" x 5" cards.

Then World War 2 hit, and nearly all metal toys - including bicycles, tricycles, bb guns, etc., all evaporated from the store shelves. ALL metal was suddenly diverted away from consumer store shelves to military use. Toys, when found at all, would be made out of wood, paper, cardboard, or combinations of all three. (These were highly disgusting to all of us who knew what "real" toys should look like). Christmas ornaments were equally affected by the war, and my family  has kept a few small Christmas wreaths that were made out of cardboard centers covered over with a thin wrapping of tinfoil. They looked bad then - and even worse today!

My mom was resourceful, and determined to locate better quality Christmas toys for me than those wood and paper products in the stores, so she shopped in the many pawn shops along  9th Street (now MLK), near the Post Office where my father worked. She found a number of really nice presents in those shops, such as a microscope and a stereoscope (which allowed you to see special photos made in 3-D). I was fascinated by those things and still have them - and they are still amazing my grandchildren today!

Following the war, there was a strong tendency toward wind-up toys. Spring operated, they were made out of lightweight steel. I had a small Jeep that ran in crazy directions, would suddenly stop, rear up on its back wheels, and head off in a new direction. And I also had a small grouping of characters from the 'Li'l Abner' comic strip who danced in-place around an upright piano. BOTH would be great collectors' items today, except for the fact my mom gave them all away while I was gone to the U.S. Air Force.

The chief tendency in toy making - as in other things as well - has been toward lightness of weight. You can almost judge the age of a toy by its weight! Following World War 2 that is especially true, because the new products spun off by the war effort included plastics, which have been vastly improved through the years. When I was in grade school the only plastic materials we had were called cellophane and celluloid. Cellophane looked exactly like today's saran-wrap but could be more easily torn. Once a small tear developed, it was gone! No repair! And celluloid was usually an ungainly plastic mass, highly susceptible to cracking. It would not break, but could not be fastened to a wooden handle, for example, without the fastening device (screws or pins) cracking it severely. Thankfully those two materials are gone. In the 1940's the word "plastic" generally had a bad connotation, as it meant "cheap" or of poor quality.  The new plastic Christmas trees were long reviled, though that has all changed. Wonderful new plastics, such as styrofoam, came as a direct result of the Space Race of the 1960's: Col. John Glenn almost burned up on his first return from orbit, which led directly to its invention as a heat shield.

The bicycles and tricycles of the present day do not look much different from those of the 1940's - except for the unseen technology that has gone into them. Simple-looking items, such as skate boards, follow the same trend toward light weight and high tech - as do many types of water craft. Boys have always had toy guns of all varieties, and balls for every sport. High-tech has revolutionized virtually everything we see, in one way or another. In my day, there were only street-shoes, and boots of one type or another. If you wore tennis shoes to school, it meant you were poor! Tennis shoes were then of TWO varieties - the high quartered, and the low quartered. They were used for...err...TENNIS, and no self-respecting person would ever wear them as street shoes! That has clearly long-since changed. Back in my day they only came in black/white format. Now they come in all colors and are made for numerous applications - including normal street wear.

Little girls' toys have seen many advancements and changes, although the great main feature in the world of dolls has been in the manufacturers' constant search for realism. Barbie was a great innovator in the doll world of the early 1960's. She set the new trend toward  modernity and realism. Her saucy hair-styles and brightly-colored modern attire contributed to her great success, as she was one of the first dolls to come about approximately with the hippie age, which included psychedelic colors and the mini-skirt. Grown women where I worked sat at their desks and discussed Barbie dolls while they worked. I have had friends who worked as artists for the big doll manufacturers in the Northeast. One of these people described the slow and deliberate way a nose might be chosen for a new model of doll. They would try numerous choices before selecting one to put into production. The wrong nose (or mouth, or chin) could make a vast difference in sale-ability of the product. THAT was a highly subjective, and frightening choice to make! My own daughter had an array of girl's toys which included a "Chatty Cathy" doll, and a ballerina doll which pirouetted gracefully as you pressed downward on the crown she was wearing. She also had a spirograph with intricately-designed cogged wheels which allowed you to draw fantastic shapes - although that toy was for both boys and girls.

Late in the 1980's I had the privilege of sculpturing the reverse side of a commemorative U.S. silver dollar for numismatic artist - AND toy designer - Marcel Jovine. I was an Engraver for the U.S.Mint, of course, and Marcel was leaving on his last trip home to Italy shortly after being selected to produce the artwork for former president Dwight David Eisenhower's Centennial Silver Dollar - Reverse side. Marcel and I already knew one another through a medallic sculpture organization, and it was a distinct honor to be asked to sculpture the Eisenhower home at Gettysburg, PA, for him while he was out of the country. Marcel had designed many medals - and now, one side of a silver coin. In our many conversations, he told me all about how he had invented the popular scientific toy, known as, "The Visible Man", followed soon by "The Visible Woman". Both his "man" and "woman" models were deemed to be anatomically correct, and soon became "required" graphic study-aids for hundreds, if not thousands, of both Art and Anatomy students throughout the world! The walls of Jovine's beautiful three-story home near Fort Lee, N.J., were filled, tastefully, with the original plaster models for NASA and many other agencies of similar distinction.

While living in Philadelphia, my apartment was not far from a toy museum in Society Hill, which, unfortunately, I never got to visit. Their hours and days of operation did not easily co-ordinate with my own, so I will always regret that I never got to see what treasures they might have had.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

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