Carpet Farming with Handmade Toys

Handmade toys were the norm for farm children before the industrial revolution

Detail from a page in the "Youth's Companion," circa-1881

Detail from a page in the "Youth's Companion," circa-1881. This annual premium list, which consumed much of the issue, featured all the toys and prizes a child could earn in exchange for selling magazine subscriptions.

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Christmas means toys, and most of today's toys are just as complicated and technical as everything else in our fast-paced world. It didn't used to be that way though, as I'm sure many readers remember.

Before the industrial revolution, children's toys were handmade by parents, slaves, local artisans or the children themselves, and were as elaborate as the maker's skill permitted. Many of these early  handmade toys were of made of carved wood, ivory, tin or bone, but with the spread of the iron foundries during the mid-nineteenth century, cast and wrought iron toys became popular.

Children want to do the same things as grown-ups, so toys have always been patterned after objects used by adults. During my childhood, the toys of choice for boys were more or less accurate representations of trains, tractors, trucks and cars. Since World War II was in full swing, military toys, such as airplanes, tanks and guns were popular as well. For girls, there were stoves, ironing boards, baby buggies and of course, dolls. I realize that in today's world, that sounds sexist, but when I grew up, that is the way it was, and as someone once said: We are what we were then.

We farm children saw toys in the Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogues, as well as in ads in farm papers and magazines. Many farm publications offered toys as prizes to farm kids who sold a certain number of subscriptions to that paper or magazine. An ad in a 1925 Pennsylvania Farmer shows a picture of the Fire-Fly coaster sled. The ad says, "Boys and Girls, here is your chance to get a Fire-Fly coaster. Just a little pleasant work after school hours and the sled is yours. Call on a few of your neighbors and get them to subscribe to Pennsylvania Farmer for one year at $1.00 each.

Three subscriptions is all that is required. Send us the three subscriptions together with $3.00, the amount collected, and the sled will be forwarded by prepaid parcel post."

During the early 1930s, Farm Mechanics magazine offered a cast iron model of a tractor, plow, thresher, etc. as a reward for either taking or selling a three-year subscription to the magazine for $1. The Farm Mechanics magazine prizes were made by the Vindex Company and included the choice of a John Deere D or a Case L tractor in approximately 1/16 scale, a three-bottom plow, threshing machine, combine, box wagon, manure spreader and hay wagon, and a hay loader. The wagons were pulled by a team of horses. The implements were painted in John Deere or Case colors and are quite valuable today, as few have survived. In about 1927, Vindex also made a 1/25 scale Wallis 20-30 tractor with driver in cast iron that is extremely rare today.

The Arcade manufacturing Company of Freeport, Ill., was a major toy maker from the 1920s into the 1940s. An advertisement from about 1925 claims that "For over 50 years, Arcade Hardware products have satisfactorily served all dealer requirements." The ad pictures the firm's No. 4 Crystal Coffee Mill, No. 1 Flour Mill and their cast iron toy line, including a Fageol Safety Coach passenger motor bus, a Mack hook-and-ladder fire truck, a Fordson tractor with driver, and a McCormick-Deering two-bottom tractor plow.

Arcade made many thousands of these toys and many have survived. However, today's collectors are willing to pay high prices for most of them. To get an idea of the present value of the old Arcade toys, I recently looked through the listings on the internet auction service, eBay. A Fageol bus is currently listed at $600, while a 1940s 9N Ford tractor with driver and mounted plow carries a reserve price of $1,100. A five-piece cast iron bathroom set for a doll house is going for $150, and a McCormick-Deering 10-20 tractor has been bid up to more than $200 with the reserve price not met yet. A nice Fordson tractor with driver is going for a little over $50, while a McCormick-Deering tractor plow has been bid up to $80.

In the twenties, thirties and forties, the Hubley Manufacturing Company of Lancaster, Pa., made many vehicle toys. One of these was a model of an Oliver 70 orchard tractor, about five inches long, with a separately cast driver. At a 1986 auction, a Hubley 11-inch 1928 Packard Straight Eight Car sold for more than $7,000.

In the mid-forties, the Carter Company began making their "Tru-Scale" line of toy farm equipment. There were Tru-Scale versions of just about every implement used on the farm, and most were quite realistic, although construction was typically of sheet metal rather than die-cast. Tru-Scale toys are often found on flea market tables at steam and tractor shows, commanding high prices if they are in good condition, especially for the rarer pieces.

When I was a kid, I was the proud owner of a die-cast John Deere Model A tractor that provided the power for all my field operations. I often took a piece of chalk and marked off the living room rug into fields, roads and pastures. The only store-bought implement on my little spread was a John Deere Model H manure speader, but I made myself a full line of farm machinery from cardboard, bits of wood and string, all glued together. I spent many happy hours plowing, discing, planting, cultivating and harvesting those miniature acres. ("Mom, I can't go to school today! I've got hay down on the fireplace field and it looks like rain..." It never worked for me either.)

If you check out the toy shelves at your local farm equipment dealer, you'll find a huge variety of toy tractors, implements, farm buildings, animals and accessories, enough to gladden the heart of the most discriminating carpet farmer. I'm sure a lot of living room rugs will be well-tilled after Santa's annual visit this Christmas. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all our readers. Thanks for your interest and support. FC

Ever since his days as a boy on a farm in western Pennsylvania, Sam Moore has been interested in tractors, trucks and machinery. Now a resident of Salem, Ohio, he collects antique tractors, implements, and related items.