Small Talk / Museum

Factories in the Business of Play

tin toys

At The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, the Toys, Inc. story continues into the 19th century as toy making graduated from homes to factories and machines replaced manual labor. With low profit margins and a time-consuming process, the cottage industry had difficulty bringing home any bacon. On the other hand, factories were able to boost production with steam-powered engines and mechanized processes that churned out large quantities of toys.

To maintain their dominance in the market, Germany turned to tin toys (or maybe it was because they had depleted the country’s wood supply?). Tin was cheap to produce, lightweight to ship, and could be easily decorated. A win, win, win! Wanting a piece of the pie, America entered the toy production game with a readily available material from the country’s prolific railroad construction: cast iron. By utilizing an easily obtainable material, the U.S. could produce toys that were less expensive than German imports. Can you say cha-ching?!

Cottage Industries in the Business of Play

Cottage Industries

Toys aren’t all fun and games, they’re also a thriving 84-billion-dollar global industry! Surprisingly though, the industry is only 200 years old. Yet, it’s come a long way from small shops to enormous corporations of the likes of Hasbro and Mattel. But, let’s go back to the beginning with T/m’s permanent exhibition Toys, Inc. The Making of an Industry.

Once upon a time, in the 18th century forested regions of Germany, farming and mining families made wooden toys to supplement their incomes. These carved peg dolls and Noah’s Arks were the beginning of the modern toy industry. Early wooden toy makers often utilized their entire family in turning, carving, and painting processes. This household production of goods was coined a “cottage industry” because toy makers were quite literally being industrious in their cottages!

Building a Fine-Scale Collection

fine-scale miniature

What started as a souvenir in the 1950s, became a serious collection by the 1970s, a museum by 1982, and is today the world’s largest and finest collection. Museum co-founder Barbara Marshall combined her love for small things with an eye for detail refined throughout her professional career in Hallmark’s art department and volunteer service at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The combination resulted in a patron that desired only the highest quality work from artists that could meet her standards.

Marshall encouraged artists to create their dream fine-scale works, allowing many artists to explore the boundaries of the art form. The outcomes can be seen throughout T/m’s miniature galleries, including Emperor Charles V of Spain and Queen Isabella of Portugal.

Inspiring a Fine-Scale Collection

fine-scale miniature

On Small Talk, we’ve already looked at three miniature commissions in the early 20th century that helped spark the fine-scale miniature movement: Queen Mary’s Dollhouse, Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle, and the Thorne Rooms. All three commissions employed full-scale craftsmen to create miniature versions of their work for public exhibition. But how did the museum’s collection come to be?

Museum founder Barbara Marshall loved small things. Contrary to most children, she always looked forward to getting the “smallest” present. In the 1950s, she discovered the shop of Eric Pearson, one of the craftsman hired to furnish the Thorne Rooms. A 1:12 scale Pearson rocking chair began her collection that is now the largest in the world. Stay tuned for more about Marshall and the gigantic, miniature collection she built.

Playful Collecting

Mary Harris Francis

The new exhibits at The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures would not be complete without paying homage to the women who started it all: Barbara Marshall and Mary Harris Francis. Nestled amongst the toy exhibits on the second floor is the first antique dollhouse acquired by Mary Harris Francis in 1974—the New Rochelle Mystery House—and a fire station and pair of trucks from her husband’s childhood.

Mary Harris Francis never lost the connection she felt to her own childhood and this sense of playfulness guided her collecting. She was most attracted to objects that had been handmade and well-loved, leaving T/m a collection of toys with rich provenances that are detailed here on Small Talk and in the museum. Francis passed away in 2005, but her curatorial acumen will always be remembered through one of the nation’s largest collections of antique toys at T/m.

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