Exhibit reveals Union County’s toymaking history

Photos Courtesy of K. Phelps, ShoreShot Photography   A building set made by Meccano toy company, once located in Elizabeth.
Photos Courtesy of K. Phelps, ShoreShot Photography
A building set made by Meccano toy company, once located in Elizabeth.

UNION COUNTY, NJ — Whether it’s a crib mobile from the ’40s, or the famous “Suzy Homemaker” teal-green oven from the late ’50s, the newest exhibit of vintage toys at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton is a testament to Union County and some of the famous toys manufactured here.

Visitors can take a step back in time and enjoy a bit of nostalgia with the museum’s “Toy World,” exhibit, which spotlights the history of toy manufacturing in New Jersey.

The exhibition showcases more than 100 toys that were made in New Jersey between 1880 and the late 1960s, during New Jersey’s golden era of manufacturing. Among the featured toys are the ubiquitous green army men, the first “talking” doll, created by Thomas Edison, the joy buzzer, a classic handshake gag, Colorforms playsets and more, all developed and produced in the state.

New Jersey was a pioneering center for the toy industry, and was home to more than 50 different companies that produced everything from tinplate toys to model trains. Two of the top four tinplate toy manufacturers were located here.

New Jersey was also home to numerous model train makers, including Lionel, Beggs, Dorfan, Mantua and Tyco. After World War II, the state perfected the development and use of plastics in toy manufacturing. By 1950, New Jersey was producing one-tenth of the nation’s toys. Only four states made more toys than New Jersey.

Four Union County toy companies are represented at the exhibit, all of whom greatly influenced the toy industry.

Deluxe Reading Company, also known as Topper Toys, was located in Elizabeth, and operated between 1951 and 1971. It was one of the country’s largest toy makers in the ’60s, and in 1961 signed a lease to house the company at the old Singer Sewing Machine plant. It is estimated that the company employed between 3,000 and 5,000 people and produced many popular toys in plastic, which had replaced steel, tin and wood as the major medium.

Meccano, another toy company once located at 1004 Elizabeth Ave. in Elizabeth, was a metal construction toy company founded by Frank Hornby in Liverpool, England in 1901, but quickly spread worldwide. When the company decided to open a branch in the U.S., they decided on Elizabeth because of its central location and accessibility.

The U.S. Meccano plant operated from 1922 until 1928, when it was bought by A.C. Gilbert, the producer of Erector sets. The purchase of the Elizabeth plant marked the end of the U.S. Meccano toy company.

Childhood Interests, Inc., once located in Roselle Park, was founded in 1941 by 60-year-old Harry Miller, and became the nation’s largest producer of infant’s educational toys by the ’50s. In the ’50s, the average age of employees at the company was 55-years-old. The company was headquartered at 180 Westfield Ave. in Roselle Park and went out of business around 1970.

The S.S. Adams Company, located in Plainfield, was founded around the turn of the century by Sam Adams, who invented hundreds of practical joke toys, including the famous joy hand buzzer. Although the company’s heyday came during its years in Asbury Park, the Danish immigrant founder opened his first business in Plainfield’s Babcock building. There, he made his first product, a sneezing powder called “cachoo,” among other early gag toys.

According to Nicholas Ciotola, the museum’s curator of cultural history, the exhibit shines a spotlight on the state’s important role in the toy-making industry. “The museum collects artifacts illustrating the state’s role in the history of play, but the last toy-centered exhibit at the museum took place 30 years ago,” Ciotola told LocalSource in an email. “The museum is long overdue to explore this lesser-known aspect of the state’s industrial history. But above all, we want visitors to have fun with this exhibition.”

According to Ciotola, the museum has held several toy exhibits over its 100-plus year history, but the last was in the early ’80s. “We felt that we were long overdue for an exhibit on this topic, especially one that could go up in the fall and run through the holiday season when toys are on many people’s minds,” said Ciotola.
“These past exhibits focused primarily on the Victorian Era, up to around 1900. Looking at what we had in the collection and comparing it to research on the industry, we realized that the real story of New Jersey as a toymaker was an industrial twentieth- century story.”

Ciotola said that the museum went about identifying New Jersey toymakers and set out acquiring artifacts representing these companies for addition to the museum’s permanent collection. “Our hope was to preserve a facet of New Jersey history that no other museum is actively preserving,” Ciotola said. “Toys represent a lens through which we can explore many facets of New Jersey’s history in the 20th century — stories of immigration, war, pop culture, industrialization, gender roles, technological change, and innovation are all intertwined with the history of toys. Since our major audiences consist of families with children and school groups, we wanted an exhibit topic that could teach N.J. history in a fun and entertaining way. Sometimes, it is hard to interest people in New Jersey history. By finding an appealing topic with wide popular appeal and using it as the vehicle to explore unknown aspects of New Jersey history, we feel that we are increasing our potential of reaching the widest popular audience.”

Although many people are familiar with some of the more famous toy makers such as Mattel, Hasbro, Parker Brothers, and Kenner, said Ciotola, the history of some of the older toy companies — so crucial to understanding the state’s place as a major industrial force — has been forgotten. One example that Ciotola cites is the Topper toy company. “Since the company leased the old Singer Sewing Machine building, its history is really significant to the history of New Jersey,” he said. “It shows that the Garden State was more than an agricultural producer — it was a center of manufacturing of items that run the gamut from sewing machines to plastic toys. Our exhibit features one of the more controversial — by today’s standards, perhaps — of Topper’s many toys, the Suzy Homemaker toy oven.”

Ciotola cites the popular toy in the ’50s and ’60s, and how it clashed with the values of the emerging feminist movement of the era. “Everyone knows the famous Easy Bake Oven by Kenner and Hasbro, but Topper produced a whole line of similar Suzy Homemaker products in the 1960s,” said Ciotola. “These included a toy oven, a toy blender, a toy iron, a toy laundry machine. Needless to say, the term ‘Suzy Homemaker’ earned the ire of the feminist movement, which challenged the name Suzy Homemaker as a name unfit for young girls in modern America.”

The Suzy Homemaker range could be purchased for $9.99 on sale in 1967, and was regularly priced at $13.97.

Topper was also a pioneer in TV advertising, according to Ciotola. “Its gender-specific toys were broadcast wildly during kids programming in the 1960s,” he said. “The Suzy Homemaker toy oven, a cool tool that is fun to look at and surely fun to play with, tells the story of Elizabeth as a manufacturing leader, the story of gender roles and the budding feminist movement, and the story of advertising.”

Other Topper toys included a series of ‘Secret Sam’ spy toys, which were, according to Ciotola, inspired by the Cold War, and show how toy history is intertwined with current events.

For additional information on the ‘Toy World’ exhibit, please visit www.statemuseum.nj.gov.