Small Talk / Toys

Getting the Lead Out

Lead Soldiers with Mold

December brings holiday cheer, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and toy safety! The nation’s leading volunteer eye health and safety organization, Prevent Blindness America has declared December to be Safe Toys and Gifts Month “in order to keep the holiday season joyful for everyone.” Toy safety is a top priority, and organizations like the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission have also released safety tips and guidelines for buying and playing with toys.

Safe toys haven’t always been the standard. In the past, kids played with tiny steam engines, used candles to light up the interiors of their toy train stations and dollhouses, and even handled dangerous lead to cast their own toy soldiers. Anyone could buy blocks of lead and use a casting set to create toy armies and figures. This was marketed as an “easy and safe” activity…at least until the harmful side effects of lead were discovered and safety regulations were enforced in the 1960s and ‘70s. According to this article in Popular Science, just one of these lead soldiers contains enough lead to render several million toys unfit for sale in the U.S. by today’s standards. We don’t think Santa will be bringing any kids a lead casting set for Christmas this year!

Keep on Truckin’

hess toy trucks

East Coasters will notice a big change after this holiday season. A roadside staple, Hess gas stations will all change their name to Speedway. Why are we mentioning this on Small Talk? Because it’s also the last year the Hess’s classic green trucks will be available for purchase at their stations. It’s truly the end of an era! Hess gas stations began carrying small toys during the 1960 holiday season. As a survivor of the Great Depression, founder Leon Hess desired to create small, affordable toy cars that came complete with batteries. The Hess 1964 Tanker Trailer sold for less than five dollars.

Fifty years later, Hess has established itself as a desirable outlet for collectors and children’s playthings in the United States. In light of the celebration, the company is offering a commemorative heavy-duty, flatbed truck with modern additions like motion and button-activated sounds, retractable landing gear, and folding wings. For more modern Hess fans, the company has also created a space cruiser complete with a large cargo bay that houses a small scouter plane. Although the trucks will roll out of the stations forever, don’t fret, the Hess line of transportation toys will still be available for purchase online.

What’s the story, wishbones?

Victorian fancies

The superstition of wishing upon a wishbone can be traced back centuries to England, Rome and even ancient times. Anyone with siblings, cousins or even a surly aunt or uncle knows it’s always a race to see who gets the honor of pulling the wishbone apart. This set of wishbone furniture must have taken some of the drama out of family holidays!

A lot of turkeys and hens were were cooked up in order to collect enough wishbones to create this unique set of dollhouse furniture. In the 19th century, it became very fashionable for women to save up everyday scrap items like bones, feathers, and quills and turn them into spectacular crafts known as Victorian fancies. Sets of furniture like this one were some of the most popular Victorian fancies to make. After all, your dollhouse family needs tables and chairs for their Thanksgiving feast too!

I’m So Fancy

Victorian Fancies

We’ve got to hand it to the Victorians: they were recycling and reusing a century before the country had heard of Al Gore or Earth Day! Everyday objects like wishbones, spools and nut shells were all given a new life as fanciful, yet functional art objects. All the rage in the 19th century, this crafty trend of turning trash into tiny treasures resulted in Victorian fancies.

While T/m’s  Victorian fancy doll isn’t exactly winning the beauty contest amongst the dolls in our collection, she certainly gets high marks for functionality and being “green.” Her body consists of a wishbone wrapped in muslin and plaid fabric scraps; and her head is painted cork. Her dress is actually intended to be used as a pen wipe, a desktop necessity in the days of the dip or nib ink pens. The tag pinned to her reads, “Once I was a wishbone, And grew upon a hen. Now I am a ‘Spinster,’ Made to wipe your pen.”

Toys for the War Effort

world war ii toy soldiers

During World War II, many Americans got their first taste of recycling by saving and donating household items to support the war effort. Stockings became parachutes; leftover cooking fats were turned into glycerin for gunpowder. From 1942-1945, metal was so scarce and necessary for the war that even the Oscar statues given out at the Academy Awards were made of painted plaster. Kids got involved by marching their toy soldiers to scrap metal collection facilities to be melted down for the war effort. In order to stay in business, toy manufacturers were forced to find different materials for their toys.

One company, Playwood Plastics, survived the metal shortages by making soldiers out of sawdust mixed with a glue-like substance of water and flour. The mixture was stamped into shape and left to dry. The soldiers were then hand-painted. Not as hearty as their metal cousins, many broke apart over time. T/m’s pair retain traces of their original blue paint. The distinctive “P” in a triangle marks them as Playwood Plastics soldiers.

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