Small Talk / Toys

The Motor Car Man with a Big Heart

“If you want happiness, there is only one way in the world to get it. You’ve got to give it.” –Jerry Smith

T/m’s newest special exhibit, Going Places: The Toy Collection of Jerry Smith, features toys collected by Jerry Smith (1917-1984), a Kansas City automotive dealer and philanthropist whose generous heart and fabulous toy collection left a lasting impact on the community.

It was the Christmas of 1924 that would later inspire Smith to start collecting toys. The holiday was a big event for six-year-old Smith, who circled the toys he longed for in the Sears and Roebuck catalog. As the youngest of six, the Kansas farm boy was depending on Santa to fulfill his dreams. However, there was only one present waiting for him under the tree: a cast iron Arcade Fordson toy tractor.

tractor

An Arcade Fordson tractor similar to the one Smith received

Disappointed, Smith called Santa a “tightwad” and said it was “the skinniest Christmas I’d ever had.” He would never forget those feelings of longing, frustration, and dashed hope, and that memory compelled him to help others in need. Smith grew up and moved to Kansas City, where he opened a Buick dealership at 5835 Troost in 1952. Smith ran his dealership with the philosophy, “You don’t get ahead, you give ahead.” He became a supporter of many local charities, especially those that served children. He also founded Operation Friendship, an initiative dedicated to providing for the community. In 1965, the Kansas City Times referred to Smith as “…a motor car man with a ready smile and . . . a heart that figuratively is as big as all outdoors. This particular man never seeks praise for his work. If you meet him on the street, he will just say . . . ‘We’ve taken care of that last case you referred to us…tell us about some more folks who need a lift.’”

One Christmas, Smith’s sister-in-law gifted him an identical version of his now long-lost Arcade Fordson tractor. He was overjoyed and realized there were more toys in the Arcade series. He set out to collect the entire set, and soon moved on to other toys that reminded him of his childhood: planes, trains, automobiles, farm toys, mechanical banks, fire engines, and transportation toys of all kinds. Eventually, Smith collected over 11,000 toys.

A selection of Smith’s toys from a 1968 Hallmark calendar

Following his philosophy of helping others, Smith used his collection to benefit the community. Whenever his collection was put on display, he would request that a fee be donated to a Kansas City charitable organization, usually Children’s Mercy Hospital. During the holiday season in 1965, Smith’s collection was exhibited at the Hallmark Gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Over 130,000 visitors attended, and all the proceeds went to a youth organization. Smith even appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to promote the exhibit; the entire video is available to view in the exhibit.

Jerry Smith with a 1968 toy exhibit at the Hallmark Gallery. Image courtesy of the Hallmark Archives.

Back home in Kansas City, Smith’s collection was exhibited at the Wornall-Majors House and the Kansas City Museum. Smith also created the Christmas Village, which featured festive holiday dioramas in the Long-Bell Lumberyard at Gregory and Wornall. Smith requested that admission proceeds go to Children’s Mercy Hospital. By 1967, Children’s Mercy had received over $25,000 from displays of Smith’s toys.

Jerry Smith in one room of his Christmas Village

Smith’s philanthropy continues to influence the Kansas City community. His charitable contributions reached organizations including the Kansas City Museum, the Boy Scouts Area Council, Avila College, the Rehabilitation Institute, Children’s Therapeutic Learning Center, and more. In 1976, Smith donated his 360-acre farm to the Kansas City parks system, which is still used as a park today. Last but certainly not least, Smith helped T/m founders Mary Harris Francis and Barbara Marshall assemble some of their earliest exhibits. Many of the cast iron and transportation toys T/m has on display in the permanent exhibits today came from Jerry Smith’s collection.

Mary Harris Francis, Barbara Marshall, and Jerry Smith celebrating Christmas at T/m in 1982

For Jerry Smith, a disappointing Christmas turned into a lifetime of giving. As the Kansas City Star remarked in 1966, “Perhaps none of this would have happened if Santa Claus had come through with the entire list submitted by Jerry back in 1924. Maybe Santa knew what he was doing after all.” During your next visit to T/m, be sure to stop by Going Places to learn more about the incredible toy collection and lasting impact of Jerry Smith.

— Written by Katherine Mercier

 

A Game of Put and Take

One of the most treasured Hanukkah traditions is of course spinning the dreidel in order to win that big pile of chocolate gelt! The game, which was popularized in sixteenth-century Germany, involves spinning a four-sided top. While this game commemorates the origins of Hanukkah, later versions of the game were created for secular play and simple gambling.

A cousin of the dreidel, the teetotum is a multi-sided top that includes either numerals or in the case of this brass model, English instructions. Popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the game of Put and Take involved two or more players spinning the teetotum and following the directions on the face-up side in order to win (or lose) money from a pot. The game, which was easily set up and could be played almost anywhere, became a huge craze in the 1920s and 1930s. The game was met with controversy in many places due to being associated with gambling and eventually faded in popularity. We’ll stick to chocolate coins, thank you!

Inside a Dollhouse Like No Other

Coleman Dollhouse

When the massive Coleman Dollhouse was discovered in the Coleman family estate, it did not have its original contents. As a result, we can only guess how the six Coleman children must have played with this playhouse-like structure. When the dollhouse came to T/m, it was set up according to the style of the 1880s, using appropriately-sized furnishings and dolls.

Coleman House’s outer façade is covered in a textured finish comprised of paint and sand, a technique called rustication. The front of the house has two large hinged doors that close and lock with a skeleton key. The basement level sides also have hinged doors that reveal a billiards room and a kitchen. One of the most astonishing facts about Coleman House (other than, well, its size) is the evidence of metal pipes indicating it once had gas lighting!

A Dollhouse Like No Other

Coleman Dollhouse

At first glance inside T/m’s dollhouse exhibit, Let’s Play House, the gigantic Coleman Dollhouse might appear to be one of the trendy “tiny houses.” We love superlatives around here at the museum (smallest, oldest, biggest) and Coleman Dollhouse tops the dollhouse chart at over nine feet tall, eight feet wide, and four feet deep. Although it wasn’t meant to be lived in by people, it was the playtime home for some lucky children in the nineteenth century.

The grand dollhouse was originally owned by the Coleman family, who lived in a 39-room mansion in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, called The Homestead. In 1935, the Coleman family gifted The Homestead to the city. By 1961, the home had fallen into disrepair and was slated for demolition. Luckily, a salvage crew discovered the disassembled dollhouse before razing the estate. We’ll take a peek inside Coleman House next time!

Don’t Cry, Tiny Tears

Tiny Tears

Introduced by the American Character Doll Company in 1950, Tiny Tears hit toy store shelves at the beginning of the Baby Boom. In the years to follow, Tiny Tears became one of America’s most popular dolls. Aside from her cute looks and features, the doll owed much of her success to the power of marketing. New York-based American Character Doll Company was quick to adapt to new television technology and advertised on popular shows like Ding Dong School and The Shari Lewis Show. A young Patty Duke was even a Tiny Tears spokesman (spokes-kid?) for a short time.

Of course the doll’s popularity also had a lot to do with how fun she was! Equipped with a rubber body and plastic head, Tiny Tears could drink from a bottle, wet her diaper, and, of course, cry liquid tears. The baby doll’s durability was popular with kids and parents alike and gave many little girls their practice shot at motherhood.

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