When writing a letter to the jolly old elf up North, we usually begin with “Dear Santa” and then explain how good we’ve been all year. Maybe we entice St. Nick to our house with promises of chocolate chip cookies and ice cold milk. And a courteous greeting to Mrs. Claus and the reindeer is a nice touch. But eventually we get to the object of our letter, and Santa finds our wish list of toys.
The modern tradition of writing letters to Santa began around 1871 when Thomas Nast published a cartoon of Santa Claus in Harper’s Weekly. The caricature shows Santa at his desk reading letters from children’s parents. Notice how the pile of letters from naughty children is much taller than those from nice children!
Perhaps to simplify Christmas shopping, catalogues advertised stockings for children that included different toys, such as this page from the 1927 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue. Parents could choose the stocking’s size and whether it was for a boy or girl. (Clicking on the picture will show you larger view of all of the goodies in the stockings!)
Here are just a few examples from our collection of what children might have written Santa Claus for in the first half of the twentieth century. Most of them appeared in catalogues like Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Marshall Fields & Co. Maybe we’ll give you some gift ideas for the little ones if you still have some shopping left to do!
The stuffed bear is a timeless toy for any child. Many gifts were handmade by the child’s loved ones. Stuffed animals continue to be loved and favorited toys by children.
Another classic toy, dolls have been loved by children since ancient times. Jointed dolls like this one were advertised in the 1892 Marshall Fields & Co. catalogue. Her knees and elbows bend, making her more lifelike. Doll companies endeavored to make the doll that looked most like a live baby.
A velocipede is a human powered land vehicle that has more than one wheel. Made by the Gendron Wheel Co. of Toledo, Ohio, this tricycle was featured in the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue. In 1919, Sears refers to this velocipede as a “girl’s tricycle.”
This toy piano made by Schoenhut has ten wooden keys. Albert Schoenhut made a new piano in 1872 that replaced fragile glass sounding bars with steel plates. Pianos like this were made until 1935, but based on the stencil design of dancers and cherubim, it is believed to be from the 1910s.
The Panama Pile Driver is a mechanical toy that uses marbles to operate. Marbles are loaded into the top tray. When the string is pulled, the marbles drop one at a time into the bucket, driving it down. To see this toy in action, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNV4t37gQKo
Pictured here is an American Flyer O gauge passenger train set. It was first introduced by the American Flyer Manufacturing Company in 1918. The wind-up motor of the earlier clockwork trains were replaced with an electric motor. These electric trains were enjoyed by boys and girls alike during the 1920s.
These two dolls, made of imitation leather, are characters in the comic strip Gasoline Alley, created by Frank King in 1918. Still in publication, the comic is the second-longest running strip. It is unique in that the characters age in real-time and experience major life events such as marriage and children, as well as growing old. Skeezix made his appearance in the comic in 1921 as a baby left on the doorstep of bachelor Walt Wallet. These dolls were featured in the 1927 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue, Skeezix for 39 cents and Pal for 59 cents.
Monopoly’s predecessor, Finance and Fortune was first issued by L.S. Ayers & Co. in 1932 and was later reissued by Parker Brothers. It is similar to Monopoly in that lots can be purchased and Chance cards are played; however, there are no monopolies, and instead of going to jail, you’ve unfortunately missed the train and must pay $10 to take a rowboat to “Soak’Em Wharf.” If you look closely at the picture on the game’s box cover, you can see Mr. Monopoly, or maybe his brother.
What would Christmas morning in the Midwest be without fresh powdered snow and a new sled?
The Erector Set that boasted to be “the boy builder” was first produced by A.C. Gilbert in 1911. A very popular toy throughout the decades, this set can be found in the 1940 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue. In 1918, the Council of National Defense considered stopping toy production so that those factories could produce materials needed for the war effort. A.C. Gilbert spoke to the Council and convinced them not to cancel Santa. The media called Gilbert “the man who saved Christmas.”
This wind-up car was the first toy produced by Rockford’s own Nylint Corporation. It was called the “Amazing Car” because it could drive forwards, backwards, start, stop, and make turns all on its own. The box, unique because it pictured the product, gives detailed instructions on how the car operates. The selector on the bottom of the car determines the path, the wind-up key determines the distance, and the stop prong will stop the car. It became popular at the 1946 Toy Fair in New York City where 100,000 orders were placed.
Evolved from the early pull toys, spring toys like this were introduced in 1895, but did not become popular until WWI. By pushing down the tail of the cat, it springs forward across the floor or table. Many toys such as this did not go out of style or change much over the decades aside from modernizing the look of the toy.
Happy Holidays from Midway Village Museum!