Today, we play with toys. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Sorting through a box the
other day, I found old toys -- a lead soldier, a
stuffed dog, a set of blocks. In a rush, they
brought back the sensate connection we feel with
our childhood playthings:
The ozone smell of the electric motor for my
erector set. The satisfying fit of Lincoln Logs.
The liquid sound of a candle-powered,
steam-propelled Put-Put boat in the bathtub.
The thwump of a really well-made sling-shot.
The just-right tension of a windup rubber-treaded
tractor. Model-airplane dope, snowballs, sleds, and
my first bike. What a vast formative influence toys
Now I find a book of toy ad pages from the Sears
and Roebuck catalog -- 1921 to 1939. The later ones
are those I pored over as a child, wondering what I
might talk my parents into buying for Christmas or
my birthday. The book also shows how toymakers
reshaped the outside world to fit the minds of
children. And I trace, with fascination, how toys
evolved throughout those years.
Look at construction kits: At first you find small
carpentry sets. Here are the tools:
you decide how to use them! But assembly kits
also appear. Tinker
Toys are there along with the famous metal
construction kits: Meccano, Erector, and others.
They compete in the beginning. Erector sets, which so touched
children of my vintage, emerge as victor. Any set,
even Tinker Toys, offered to sell you one of the
new electric motors to drive the machines you'd
built. As time passed, prices dropped and quality
Then as now the catalog was filled with guns --
compressed-air popguns, cork guns, cap guns. A
dollar would by a big sturdy dump truck to use in the
back yard. You could move sand to the castle you
were building while you made engine noises. These
trucks usually had battery-operated headlights that
broke before the first battery wore out. Otherwise
they were nearly indestructible.
Streamlining appeared, very suddenly, in 1934. That
was the year the Chrysler
Airflow came on the market. Streamlining
became the new watchword in design. Tricycles,
electric trains, cars, trucks, and wagons all
became streamlined in a blink.
As toy manufacturing became more sophisticated,
handcrafting waned. Chemistry sets, build-it-yourself crystal
sets and go-carts were gradually replaced with
The Great Depression fails to reveal itself on
these pages. Here's a tricycle whose price would've
bought two hundred hamburgers for the hungry
unemployed your mother was feeding at the back
door. These pages aren't about the economics of
reality; they're about a child's dreams. Nor did it
even matter that few toys lived up to the
advertising copy. The catalogs showed us
possibility -- while we built our own soapbox cars,
pinhole cameras, and kites.
These catalogs somehow transcend the stuff they
sell. For me they tell the paradoxical kinship
between the base business of simply wanting
and the sustaining power of hope.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Collectible Toys and Games of the Twenties and
Thirties from Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalogs
(James Spero, ed.). New York: Dover Publications,
Inc., 1988. (I find it intriguing, in this context,
that the name Spero means "I hope" in either
Italian or Latin.)
In a recent op ed piece in the engineering
education journal, engineer/historian Henry
Petroski emphasizes the importance of toys:
Petroski, H., Back to the Future. Prism,
Vol. 9, no. 5, Jan. 2000.
And in this source, the former director of the
University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology
joins with his wife to bring us a study of early
mechanical toys. Spilhaus, A., and Spilhaus, K.,
Mechanical Toys: How Old Toys Work. New
York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1989.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.