Steam-Era Toys

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Opposite page: A toy engine manufactured in Japan after World War II.
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Center: This toy, meant to resemble a full-size Huber steamroller, was manufactured by Hubley. (All toys from the Robert T. Rhode collection, photos by Joe Ruh.)
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Left: A cast iron macadam roller.
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Steam-era cast iron toys, each 3 inches wide: a tandem roller (right), a threshing machine (center) and a three-wheel roller (below).

It is the 19th century, and America’s economy
is booming with new technology. The steam engine has debuted in
American society and there is no stopping the force with which its
popularity redoubles. The machine’s impact on society extends
beyond the economic plain into the classes and into American homes,
which are seeing the happy intrusion of toys that are run by steam.
But these toys are not like toys today that mothers and fathers
throw at their children to entertain them; these toys require
adults to play with their children in a personal and memorable
event.

But who is benefiting from the models? Excited children
fascinated by the enigmatic machinery? Enthusiastic fathers
delighted to have a piece of the exotic in their hands? In a word,
both. Tracing the history of the model steam engine reveals the
intricacies of the machine’s relationship with society and
underscores an oft-overlooked function of the steam engine.

THE STEAM ENGINE
INTRODUCES ITSELF

The toy has indeed had an intimate past with steam technology.
The AEolipile (Greek for “wind ball”), a primitive steam engine
dating from as early as 50 B.C., was considered a toy in its own
time and is marketed as such still. Steam engine toys are produced
today by a multitude of companies such as Jensen, Hubley, Bing and
Weeden.

One of the longest-lasting steam engine model manufacturers is
the Jensen Steam Engine Mfg. Co. Its innovative engine, Old No. 1,
was completed in 1923 and stands today as a representative of
Jensen’s current models.

The Hubley Mfg. Co., established in 1894 in Lancaster, Pa.,
built one of the first steam engine models. Hubley specialized in
cast iron replicas of steam engines and toy trains. By minimizing
the scales of its models, Hubley deftly avoided the hardships of
the Depression, but World War II took its toll. The company was
purchased by Gabriel Industries in 1965, but disappeared from the
market soon after.

It was World War II, in fact, and the associated iron shortages
that dulled the enthusiasm for steam engine models. Unable to
combat the rising costs of materials and a diminishing buyer
audience, various builders met with closings.

What was arguably the premier steam engine toy company, Bing,
originated in Nürnberg, Germany, around the mid-1860s. Gebrüder
Bing began steam toy production in 1879, and the company’s
creations ranged from steam engines to carousels to Ferris wheels.
The late 1800s and early 1900s found Bing’s product line adopted by
fellow German builders Bub, Falk and Krauss Mohr.

American producer Weeden Mfg. entered the market in 1882 with
its own glow-in-the-dark version of the match safe. Despite more
than 50 years of successful enterprising, Weeden, too, was impacted
by the harshness of World War II: After an industrious attempt by
National Playthings to redistribute the company and its products,
Weeden saw its last creations in 1952.

A VARIEGATED AUDIENCE

The steam engine replicas of the late 19th and early 20th
centuries varied drastically in their functions. As toys their
purpose was lighthearted, entertaining the young with the allure of
the fantastic: “Naturally, children idolized the engineer, seeing
in his work the fulfillment of their own desires. Many youngsters
skipped school to see a thresherman in action and to dream of the
day when they would become one of the elite,” states Reynold M. Wik
in Farm Steam Engineers: Pioneers in Rural America. These
were toys, however, markedly different from the durable plastic
playthings contemporary children recognize. “Expensive, ornate and
complex to operate, they were more of an art form,” notes John
O’Rear a software developer and historian. Jan Athey librarian for
the Toy Train Reference Library and Train Collectors Assn., echoes
that fact: “Many of these steam toys were difficult to operate and
involved the use of water, fire and alcohol, so the consumer of
these toys was more likely an adult than a child.”

These were toys that ranged in price from 50 cents per toy to
more than $5 per toy, in a time when the average laborer earned
$600 annually. Live steam engines occupied an even more costly
price range. Most children at the turn of the century were unable
to afford such unique “toys” – underscoring the conclusion that the
models were primarily for adults.

Why, then, would steam engine builders want to attract an
audience of adults? In the 1920s, when there was no television and
families were limited to the radio and catalogs for leisure, the
steam engine served a dual purpose: it entertained and
informed.

The ubiquity of world’s fairs at the turn of the century attests
to the thinking of the time. From 1853 until 1904, American world’s
fairs celebrated the newest farming implements, especially machines
representing advancements in cultivation and in reaping and
threshing grain.

Americans hungered for confirmation of the fledgling country’s
self-determination, and for some it came in the form of steam
engine models. The common worker stayed abreast of social and
technological change through the catalogs that entered his home,
and featured in those catalogs were the steam engine models of
greats such as Weeden and Jensen.

ENDURING TODAY

Technology has long played a pivotal role in society, and one
marker of a society’s progress lies in its forms of entertainment.
Technology unfailingly figures into entertainment, whether in a
device as puzzling as the AEolipile or as ornate as a
glow-in-the-dark holder for matches. Contemporary technology
behaves similarly.

When the steam engine literally roared into the forefront of
American perception in the 19th century, it assumed the power of a
symbol of American determination and fortitude.

“It was the plantation owners in the southern states who first
brought steam power into American farming, using the new engines to
drive the sugar cane crushers, their cotton gins and rice mills,
and to saw timber from their woodlands,” Wik states.

Not surprisingly, exposure of that symbol to the public
followed. American builders eagerly forged ahead of their European
fellows in the production of steam engines and steam engine models
alike, spurred by the buying power of the average American
worker.

That the popularity of steam engine models has waned but not
died completely, attests to the enduring appeal of steam in
American society. Jensen continues to produce working toys and
models crafted after models originating from the late 1800s, and
the Train Collectors Assn. maintains the Toy Train Reference
Library, one of the world’s largest and most extensive tinplate
collections (www.nttmuseum.org).

Websites such as eBay offer countless steam-powered products,
and the number of fake replicas sold as authentic speaks to the
tenacious passion of today’s buyers.

Katheryn Bramble and Kyllikki B. Brock are students who
attended Robert T. Rhode’s seminar on the literature and the
history of the steam-power era at Northern Kentucky University, and
spent the 2005 fall semester researching and composing this
article.

Contact Katheryn Bramble at: bramblek@nku.edu Contact
Kyllikki B. Brock at: brockk1@nku.edu

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