“Big boys’ toys” continue to roll as a collector’s and builder’s hobby, and as big business for manufacturers. Whether or not you’re seriously involved, it’s entertaining, even fascinating, to learn the history and see high-quality pictures, catalog artwork and advertisements of farm toys of the past 100 years.
Toy Farm Tractors fills that bill as one of the first comprehensive reference books for this popular collectible field. Written by veteran toy follower Bill Vossler and illustrated with 120 full-color photos, the book blends current trends and details with the industry’s rich history.
In our youth, many of us farmed with mechanized equipment and visited implement dealers or a relative’s farm, writes Claire Scheibe (publisher of Toy Farmer Magazine) in the book’s foreword.
“…Then as we grew in age, so did our interest in farm models. As more and more people became interested in farm toys, the closet collector knew he or she could step forth. Farm toy collections began to show up in living rooms around the nation, and the collecting of those farm models that held fond memories of times past became accepted, and transformed bygone days into living memories.”
Vossler surmises that farm toys have likely existed since the planting of the first crops, made by farm children who watched their folks rake, till and harvest, and wanted a rig just like the big ones to emulate their work. Some toys were likely made as gifts from parents to their children, and, until the late nineteenth century, all North American toys were hand-made.
Much of the early history of the commercial toy industry is unknown, due to lost records and indifference, Vossler says. But much can be deduced by studying old catalogs, advertisements, rare brochures, and the toys themselves. The earliest known commercially manufactured North American toy is believed to be a horse-drawn fire pumper wagon made in 1840 by a Philadelphia firm.
The first commercial farm toys are believed to be those manufactured by the Wilkins Toy Company of Keene, N.H., beginning about 1886. Wilkins designed and cast from iron a horse-drawn mower, sulky plow, hay rake, and tedder (which spreads out new-mown hay).
But, Vossler adds, while the Wilkins implements were exacting replicas of the real equipment, many early toy makers made cruder miniatures. Many early cast iron farm toys lacked fine details, including some of the highly valued 1930s Vindex toys made by the National Sewing Machine Co., Belvidere, III.
In the 1920s, farm toys began to be manufactured in large numbers by firms like the Hubley Manufacturing Company. Hubley’s output included a cast 4.5-inch long Avery 18/36 tractor, and the Arcade Manufacturing Company created a two-bottom pull-type cast-iron plow. These toys are highly sought-after today.
The Great Depression of the 1930s, and later, World War II, stifled creation of new toy makers. But in 1945, Fred Ertl Sr. started making farm toys in his home furnace in Dubuque, Iowa. Ertl was at the forefront of a golden age for the manufacture of farm toys that blossomed in the 1950s.
Vossler details several company histories and their products, including tractors, steam engines, threshers, implements, farm trucks and horse-drawn machinery. He also tells about customized and scratch-built farm toys built in great detail, toy restoration, pedal toys, salesman’s samples, and more. The book also covers the history of Toy Farmer Magazine, the National Farm Toy Show, and several museums.
The book also includes an overview of recent values and how collectors determine prices. As with most other collectibles, toys rated “mint in the box” usually carry a higher value. Some – including sets of tractors and implements – bring three- and four-figure amounts. But don’t be discouraged: many toys several years old will sell for less than $50. Plus, it’s fun to pick from the many new models. FC
Toy Farm Tractors, Voyageur Press, 1998; ISBN: 0-89658-380-5; 160 pages, hardbound, $29.95.
Gary Van Hoozer is a Missouri writer specializing in vintage agriculture and farm history.