Toys are us
Publication Date: Friday Dec 23, 1994

Toys are us

Museum of American Heritage offers a new vantage point on U.S. and world history through a holiday exhibit on the evolution of toys

by Monica Hayde

Despite all the talk these days about how kids can't seem to get enough of video games and Power Rangers, children have been amusing themselves in remarkably similar ways since Junior Caveman fashioned a hobby horse from a stick and ancient Egyptian kids kicked around a ball made from reeds. Indeed, as any parent knows, amid all the high-tech gizmos on children's wish lists this holiday season, there is still plenty of clamoring for good old-fashioned balls, dolls, train sets, doll houses, Erector sets, toy animals and so on.

In an exhibit that traces the history of toys from ancient times through the present (toys are now a a $14 billion-a-year industry in the United States), the Museum of American Heritage asks visitors to consider how much toys can reveal about a particular culture or civilization. "Toys of Yesteryear," financed by the Palo Alto Sport Shop and Toy World, includes toys on loan from numerous Bay Area collectors, including antique mechanical toys owned by the late Tad Cody, who was a longtime Museum of American Heritage supporter before he died last year.

With an emphasis on mechanical toys from the late 1800s through the 1960s, "Toys of Yesteryear," which runs through Feb. 19, also addresses the issue of "toys and gender," looks at the differences between European and American playthings, offers visitors the chance to operate a model train and throws in plenty of intriguing, informative anecdotes that reveal as much about American history as the old toys themselves.

In Colonial New England, for example, the Puritan values of the day allowed children to play with toys only on Sundays--and then, only if the toy taught a moral or religious lesson.

Wooden reproductions of Noah's Ark were considered good. Dolls with bare limbs were not so good.

Meanwhile, back in the Old World, German toymakers were specializing in beautifully carved and painted toys. Craftsmen's guilds established strict standards of quality, and Nuremberg became a center for distribution of toys of all kinds.

"German workmanship was fabulous," says Bob Vargas, a Los Altos toy collector who lent part of his collection to the museum. "They did work that is hard to duplicate today. The bulk of the better toys are European. They are better crafted than American toys."

England, too, would become a world toymaking capital when, in 1904, inventor Frank Hornby began to market handmade metal construction kits called Mechanics Made Easy, later to be known as Meccano. Children could build their own dirigibles, robots, buildings--even a motorized Ferris wheel--if they had the time, patience and skill.

In the United States, a similar product known as Erector sets would enthrall budding young engineers. Meccano, which eventually moved from Liverpool to Calais, France, bought the rights to the Erector name in 1990 (the financially troubled Erector went bankrupt in the 1970s) and now markets construction sets under the name Meccano-Erector in the United States.

Offering evidence that toys might not have changed as much as some concerned parents might think, today's Meccano-Erector parts are completely compatible with those manufactured before World War I.

Today's Meccano-Erector aficionados can build a "Meccanosauras," a metallic beast that lumbers along in prehistoric fashion; a scale-model Caterpillar excavator that scoops up foam pellets; an antique car; a crane; and numerous other metal and motorized creations.

On Jan. 21 and Feb. 12, Charles Pack, a Los Altos Hills resident and chairman of the "Toys of Yesteryear" exhibit, will join San Jose fiber optics expert Phil Edwards for two free demonstrations of radio and computer-controlled Meccano-Erector creations.

The development of mechanical toys such as these is carefully outlined in "Toys of Yesteryear." In medieval times, moving dolls and birds were known in India and Arabia, and were displayed in European fairs where many peasants viewed such mysterious moving devices as instruments of the devil.

In 1509, Leonardo da Vinci presented Louis XII with a mechanical lion that moved the length of a long hall, stopped in front of the king and placed a fleur-de-lis at his feet.

Whether spring-driven or operated by friction or battery, mechanical toys have done little to divert little girls' attentions away from dolls.

The word "doll" comes from the Greek word "eidolon," meaning idol. And, as playthings, dolls would appear to be as old as the word origin itself. Most dolls from ancient Greece were jointed, fashioned of burnt clay, with the limbs separately hooked on by a cord. Rag dolls were common in ancient Rome.

The Europeans who came to colonize America gave Elizabethan dolls to the Native Americans, who had their own made of corn husks, beads and feathers.

And even dolls have to have a place to live. Dollhouses are another component of the museum's extensive exhibit. In a turn-of-the-century dollhouse on display, visitors who look closely enough can find a tiny gramophone, a coal scuttle and a rug beater.

Many dollhouses were not built as toys. One of the most detailed and exquisite dollhouses ever built was made in 1924, when the palace of Queen Mary was reproduced complete with leather-bound books in the library, tiny but real bottles of wine in the cellar and a gramophone in the nursery that played "God Save the King."

Unfortunately, this particular dollhouse is not on display at the Museum of American Heritage, but there are plenty of toys and diversions to bring out the kid in just about anyone. Don't forget to check out the replica of a turn-of-the-century toy shop in the back of the museum.

Toys of Yesteryear

Who: Museum of American Heritage, 275 Alma St., Palo Alto

When: Exhibit runs through Feb. 19, 1995; museum is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

Cost: Free

Information: 321-1004

Meccano-Erector set demonstrations

Who: Presented by Charles Pack and Phil Edwards

When: 1:30-4 p.m. Jan. 21; 11 a.m.-noon and 1:30-4 p.m. Feb. 12

Where: Museum of American Heritage, 275 Alma St., Palo Alto

Cost: Free

Information: 321-1004 

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