Arcade toys enthralled generations of farm children
Arcade's McCormick-Deering tractor, shown in a 1925 catalog.
They look real. Not only was that the motto of the Arcade Manufacturing Co., Freeport, Ill., maker of Arcade toys, but it was true.
Arcade toys looked real, which endeared them to farm children used to making their own ramshackle homemade tractors out of jar lids and pipe cleaners, and plows out of old spoons.
Ray Lacktorin of Stillwater, Minn., an avid collector of cast iron Arcade toys, says the company made wonderful McCormick-Deering farm toys.
"All of their threshers, all of their tractors – the Farmall M, the A, the WC Allis, even down to some of the smaller Fordsons: they're great. Arcade really copied the real thing well."
He adds that one of the reasons many cast iron companies didn't make "nice" farm toys is because toy making was a sideline for them. They usually made items like manifold blocks for real tractors or cars, and toys on contract for another company, "and they were paid by the ton rather than the piece, so what was important wasn't how well the toys were made, but how many tons of cast iron they used in making the toys."
Arcade Manufacturing Company, too, started out making other items, "Light hardware and house furnishing specialties," as their first catalog, (in 1902), showed. For several years, the company manufactured its house furnishings, and the occasional toy, until the turning point in 1921.
That year, Arcade reached an agreement to make its first toy automobile, the Arcade Yellow Cab.
"Mr. Isaac P. Gassman, then secretary and sales manager, went to Chicago to meet with the president of Yellow Cab Co.," says Al Aune in his book Arcade Toys. The president of Yellow Cab Co. happened to know Gassman.
The importance of Arcade manufacturing the Yellow Cab was two-fold: First, it confronted headon the popular wisdom that Americans would not pay more than a dollar for a toy (the then-accepted high point); and second, it set the stage for the production of Arcade farm toys, which cost more than a dollar each.
Shortly after production of the Yellow Cab, Arcade followed with its first farm tractor, the toy Fordson Model F.
As the Fordson toys wended their way to American children, so did a curious question. As Al Aune writes, "Is that really Henry Ford driving the tractor? Are the rumors really true?" No one has ever been sure, but the fact that the question was even asked shows how realistic Arcade toys were for their era. The new toys were such an immediate success that Arcade was forced to add another department to its company, the "Yellow Cab Department," to take care of correspondence and business.
Over the next couple of years, Arcade manufactured a variety of Fordson model F tractors in different sizes, colors, and varieties.
For example, the 1925 catalog contains a color photo of the 6-inch-long model Fordson, wheels bright red, and body grey with gold trimming, with lug wheels. The catalog describes the toy as "practically unbreakable. The front wheels and axles are mounted on a swivel that permits the tractor to follow an uneven path easily. The iron driver is removable. No clock work to get out of order. Alluringly painted. A delight for all real American children."
The next page in the 1925 catalog is a color photo of the No. 20 Fordson tractor with Whitehead & Kales Company tires (the photo clearly shows the W&K on the red rear tires). A third variety, with smooth "steel" wheels, rounded out the first series of Fordsons.
The late Robert Goke, father of Jim Goke of St. Cloud, Minn., collected a wide variety of Arcade cast iron toys. "He got those three varieties of the (large) Arcade Fordson tractors with different wheels," Jim says. "He wasn't really partial to Fordsons – in fact, they were probably a little later than his farming experiences, which ended before 1930, but he wanted all three kinds."
Jim now has these toys in his own collection. Along with them, he has a couple of smaller Arcade Fordson tractors made in the late 1920s, one called a medium (4-3/4 inches long), and the small, (3-7/8 inches long). Both of these smaller Fordson tractors came in the same three types as the larger ones, with lug, smooth, or rubber wheels. More varieties included, as the Arcade catalog says, "Assorted colors, red and green, with green and red wheels respectively." The 6-inch Fordson grey trimmed in gold bronze with red wheels and a nickel-plated driver was the most colorful. Today, these toys are prized because they are Arcades. Many were manufactured, and they are not difficult to find for reasonable amounts (the smaller ones for about $30, the larger about $60).
However, as Dave Nolt writes in Farm Toy Price Guide: The Blue Book of the Hobby, "Beware! Many reproductions (have been) made of Fordsons ... by early toy companies ... with super detail."
Elvin Fieldseth of Maple Lake, Minn., agrees that it can be difficult to detect copies of some of the Arcade tractors. He has an Arcade Fordson F with solid rubber wheels. He found the toy at Medina, Minnesota's first toy show six years ago.
"It was a common Arcade toy, and it could be an original, but I don't want to say for sure. It might be original, but the way they can cast things today, you can't really tell. I know I never saw one before."
The Arcade markings are clear on the insides of the rear wheels, and the tractor feels like it is made of cast iron. Reproductions of this toy were made in 1969 in 1/16-scale, but were made of sandcast aluminum.
Arcade made a John Deere A cast iron tractor that is difficult to find nowadays. It can sell for up to $3,000, depending on condition, as can several of the other Arcade tractors.
Another prominent Arcade toy tractor was the No. 276-3 McCormick-Deering tractor.
"This toy tractor is a life-like reproduction of the large McCormick-Deering tractor made by the International Harvester Company. Attractively finished with a gray body trimmed in gold, and red wheels. Complete with nickel plated removable driver." This tractor also came in three different wheel-types. A case of a dozen of these cast iron beauties weighed 36 pounds.
Over the next 20 years, Arcade manufactured a variety of cast-iron tractors, including the Avery 45-65 tractor, International Regular, Farmall M, and the McCormick-Deering 10-20. Bill McConnell of Amenia, N.D., says his first brush with farm toys came when he was a child.
"I had an Arcade McCormick-Deering 10-20 tractor with a dirt scraper hooked to it," he says. "Mostly, in real life, it was a horse outfit, used to build roads, dig ditches, for any kind of dirt movement. It was a toy set I treasured because it was given to me by a friend of my grandfather's, a prominent man who was Assistant Secretary of Agriculture and President of the American Farm Bureau Federation. He lived probably a hundred rods from me when I was a kid."
He still has the toy today.
"But I don't think they're very common," he says. "Of all the toy shows and stuff I've been to, I've never seen but one other of them. There was also a plow with it, a two-bottom Arcade plow, and they were sold to go with those tractors." The 10-20s vary in price from $200-2,000.
Other tractors made by Arcade include the Farmall A, Allis-Chalmers WC and U, Ford 9N, Oliver 70, as well as tracked tractors like the Caterpillar 10 and the IH TD-18 and TD-40. The 1932 Arcade catalog shows the company's line of "New Caterpillar Tractors," showing the different sizes of caterpillar tractors - four of them - side by side. In the middle of the page are a couple more different sized Caterpillar tractors.
Ray says the first farm toys he put out for display – in 1966 – were Arcades. "An Arcade John Deere A tractor, an Arcade Farmall M, and an Arcade McCormick-Deering horse-drawn manure spreader, and an Arcade threshing machine. They cost, respectively, $20, $20, $15, and $26. That was considerable money at the time. Some of the guys thought I was crazy paying that much for them."
Arcade made more farm toys than tractors. The 1925 catalog is filled with other farm toys, in color, including No. 283 McCormick-Deering plow, the toy McCormick-Deering thresher, "The only known miniature thresher made in the world for toy distribution," the catalog says. Nowadays the plow goes for $300 in excellent condition, and the threshers – red, green, blue, and grey, in two sizes – for $500 in excellent condition. This catalog also shows the McCormick-Deering horse-drawn Weber Wagon in color.
One of Arcade's most unusual farm toys is found in their 1933 catalog: An International Harvester 1/12 scale Cream Separator, "black with plated bowl and pail," as Dick Sonnek writes in Dick's Farm Toy Price Guide. This is a difficult toy to find – actually, the separator itself is more easily found, but the accompanying and separate cream bucket is a much more difficult proposition. And because of the toy's value – $300-$ 1,300 for both pieces, depending on condition – the cream bucket is being reproduced today.
Another interesting toy was the Arcade windmill. Jim Goke says, "My dad and I were together one day, going through area antique shops, and the dealer said she'd found a couple of these windmills in Arizona, so dad and I each bought one." Everything except the vertical posts is made of metal, some parts cast iron, some machined iron. Jim's father sold his windmill shortly thereafter. "Some things he kept for a year or two, and then turned them over and bought something else," he said, "but most things he sold for a profit, unless he sold them to me."
Arcade also made sets of farm toys, like their No. 686 Farm Set, which is very difficult to find. It included a tractor, disc harrow, corn planter, hay mower, and drag harrow, "Five cast iron toys, exact miniatures of farm implements, mounted on a four-color false bottom illustrating a typical farm scene in four colors."
That information, as well as later information that pointed out that these Arcade tractors were not John Deere or International Harvester, or any other brand, but generic, pointed out the difficult times the company had begun to fall into.
The 1941 catalog, two years before the demise of the company, offered the No. 2737X tractor as "A cast iron miniature of a popular tractor," another generic tractor, which indicates the company perhaps could no longer afford to purchase rights to produce brand-name tractors. These generic tractors came in red, jade green, and marine blue.
1943 was the final year for Arcade toys and Arcade advertising, Aune – author of Arcade Toys – says. Ads said "We can't win this war with toys alone," and "When it is over, over there" they would make more toys.
But it was not to be; in 1943 Rockwell-Standard Co. bought The Arcade Co., and began making pistons for aircraft engines.
Arcade, and its fun and colorful toy catalogs, never returned.
The Arcade toys still elicit a lot of fun today. Bob Beall of Twelve Point, Ind., has a few Arcade toys, including a dump rake, mower, corn planter, "and an Arcade International tractor that we hook up to an Arcade threshing machine, to make a nice-looking set."
Don Lux of Janesville, Wis., says "Every person is a kid at heart sometimes, and somehow, I'm a kid at heart when I see an odd toy, like these Arcades. Otherwise, why would I have three or four hundred toys around here if I wasn't?" he laughs.
Plus, as Ray Lacktorin adds, the Arcade toys remind him of times past.
"Every time I get another one of them, I look at it and wonder, 'What kid really played with this?' He must have been thrilled to get this, through the mail, or under the Christmas tree. It had to be the greatest thrill in the world, because at the time these toys were made, money wasn't that easy to come by. Dad was getting maybe a dollar a day, and to pay a dollar for a toy like these must have been a great sacrifice."
How could parents not sacrifice to get hold of a wonderful Arcade toy for their children? They Looked Real, after all, and played real, too. FC
Bill Vossler is a regular contributor to Farm Collector.