The Vintage Toy Story - Old toys bring back good feelings from our childhood
by Leigh Elmore
The appeal of toys is universal. Everybody had something to play with as a child. And the memories of those playthings evoke feelings of contentment and security to adults who might come upon an old toy in the attic or at a garage sale. Which is why toy collecting remains one of the strongest niches in the collectors' realms these days.
A Metalcraft Coca-Cola truck for sale on eBay. (photo courtesy eBay)
Selecting what type of toy to collect is purely the result of personal whim. A lot of it depends of the age of the collector, or more accurately, when collectors were children themselves.
"A majority of the collectors that we see are in it for the nostalgia," said Andy Tolch, owner of the cinematically referenced Andy's Toys in St. Louis, MO. "A smaller percentage do it for the investment value."
Jon Morris who operates Back In Time Toys in Cole Camp and Branson, MO generally agrees with that assessment of collectors. He breaks down collectors into two sub-categories as "The person who had a particular toy as a child and the person who always wanted it," he said, noting that his older customers buy toys for nostalgia's sake while the younger ones seek investment.
Toys reflect the real world such as this Metalcraft Heinz truck. (photo courtesy eBay)
"People who are in their 60s, 70s and 80s seem to be more emotionally attached to one toy or another." They were children from the 1930s to the 1960s. "Those who are now in their 30s, 40s and 50s seem to be more interested in the investment side," Tolch said. They were children from the 1970s through the 1990s.
And while the market remains strong for vintage toys, that probably can't be said for the market in bona-fide antique toys, those manufactured in the 1920s and earlier. "The kids who played with those toys aren't with us anymore," Morris noted. So the nostalgia market for true antique toys has simply disappeared along with the generations who played with them.
Bill Berry, owner of Carlton Antique Toys, an on-line dealer of true antique toys in Hot Springs, AR, reports that business is a lot slower than he would like. A number of dealers said that true antique toys increasingly are being purchased for interior decorating purposes, rather than for toy collections.
Tolch says 1980s toys are particularly popular at the moment, a fact verified by Mike Bretta of Lincoln NE, owner of the Toys from the Past, a brick and mortar store he owns with his brother Dan Bretta. "We are the only vintage toy store in Lincoln. We deal in anything from old cast iron toys to those made currently," he said. "But the majority of the sales to folks of my generation are toys from the 1970s and '80s." That includes a lot of G.I. Joes, Star Wars and Transformer toys.
Bretta says that he and his brother do provide on-line access to their inventory, "but most customers just walk through the doors. Sometimes people will request an item and I'll search for it for them." He reports that business remains fairly strong. "Things in mint condition are obviously more valuable than things that are worn," he said.
Andy Tolch says the average age of his customers is about 50. "They are looking for the classics, such as a good Tonka truck from the 1950s." He noted though, that with the release of the new "Star Wars" movie, interest in science fiction has spiked. "That brings in a younger buyer who are looking for super hero toys. To them 1977 is ancient," Tolch said.
From playtime to occupation
Transportation toy display at Andy's Toys, St. Louis. (photo courtesy Andy Tolch)
As with many vintage toy dealers, Tolch started out as a collector. He specializes in transportation toys, cars, trucks, trains and planes, which hold center stage at his shop in St. Louis.
"Andy's Toys is the only vintage toy shop in St. Louis," Tolch says with a hint of pride. "I've been collecting since 1979 and have been in it professionally full time since 1996. I picked it up from my father, who collected toy trucks as a hobby. I collect the Metalcraft line of toy trucks, primarily because they were manufactured here in St. Louis."
Each year Tolch heads up the annual St. Louis Vintage Toy Show, this year scheduled April 3 at the South County Center Holiday Inn. (andystoys.com) Many of the Midwest's top toy collectors and dealers will be present.
Buster Brown toy truck at Andy's Toys, St. Louis. (photo courtesy Andy Tolch)
The hobby is one that is passed down from one generation to another. In Leavenworth, KS, Davis Muldon operated a flower shop, but started adding trains when he got involved with the hobby in the 1940s.
"During World War II if you could find a new toy for sale, you probably couldn't afford it," Muldon said. "My first train was a little Marx train because my Dad couldn't afford a Lionel or an American Flyer."
Muldon's passion for trains and toys evolved, so that the toys took over. Today, Thaddeus Muldon operates Dad's Toys and Trains in Leavenworth, a dealer of new merchandise that was founded by Davis, his grandfather.
Of course, today's new toys will become tomorrow's collectibles. That fact is not lost on Jon Morris of Back in Time Toys, who spent four days in New York during February attending the International Toy Fair.
"All the toy makers that you ever heard of are represented at that show," Morris said. "And even though we're talking about new toys, there are a lot of vintage type toys available today that appeal to a retro market, such as Etch-A-Sketch and Slinkies."
"So right now I'm looking for something that's new and innovative, such as drones," Morris said, "although collectibles are still my mainstay. For example, Fisher-Price has just re-released its entire line."
He acknowledges that most of his customers are men, many of whom are on weekend trips with their wives and families at the Lake of the Ozarks and around Branson. And if you are really serious about your Star Wars collection, Morris says he knows of a 1983 Millennium Falcon for sale. And at $1,200 it's a bargain. That just whets a toy dealer's appetite. "We're in our fourth year of business and we have increased sales more than 10 percent each year. We think business is good."
Metalcraft truck in display at Andy's Toys in St. Louis (photo courtesy Andy Tolch)
Collecting vintage toys is a matter of preference. Not all toy collectors go after the same items; most have their own preferred niche, brand, or style of toy. When buying any type of vintage toys, collectors need to be armed with information so they know what they are buying, what it is worth, and of course, how to tell if it is authentic. Before purchasing vintage toys, collectors should decide which type to buy, do some research.
- Know your market niche, whether it is tin toys, dolls, mechanical toys, construction toys, specific manufacturers, etc.
- Learn which symbols to look for on certain toys and how to identify them by brand. Study the manufacturers by learning the production process and the identifying marks used.
Look for brand names; they are the easiest vintage toys to identify, so new collectors should stick with them.
- Consider the condition.
- Check price guides
A Museum of Fun and Play
For years many Kansas City families with children felt like they had their own secret museum that would fascinate the kids and transport the parents back to their own childhoods. In 1982, the Toy and Miniature Museum of Kansas City opened in an Italianate mansion on the campus of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The facility originally combined the toy collection of Mary Harris Francis with the fine miniature collection of Barbara Hall Marshall; two women who were avid collectors as well as life-long friends.
Schmelzer's Red Bird, c. 1925 Sidway Topliff Company, USA (photos courtesy National Toy and Miniature Museum)
Over the next 30 years with expansions in 1985 and 2004, the museum grew to 33,000 square feet. During that same period, the collection increased to over 72,000 objects. In 2012, the museum embarked on its first public capital campaign to support building and exhibit improvements. Finally, last summer, the museum reopened as The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures with the world's largest fine-scale miniature collection and one of the nation's largest antique toy collections.
Just stepping through the doors is enough to evoke nostalgia attacks in many visitors as the exhibits traced the history of toys from the 18th century to the present day. To this day it is not uncommon to hear exclamations such as "Hey, I had that Davy Crockett Alamo set when I was six years old, 60 years ago." At least that was what I said on my last visit.
"The museum's collection of more than 46,000 toys documents humanity's ingenuity, creativity, and imagination," said Cassandra Mundt, the museum's community development coordinator. "They serve as evidence of society's cultural beliefs, technological advancements, and hopes and dreams from the 18th century to the present."
Generations of childhood are represented through dolls, dollhouses, trains, soldiers, teddy bears, and more.
New Rochelle Mystery House, c. 1884, Maker Unknown, USA
The doll and dollhouse displays are particularly enlightening, explaining that dollhouses emerged in the 19th century as affluent parents commissioned dollhouses for their daughters as a means of training them for adult life. Some were architecturally detailed and most resembled a family home. The "Ward Parkway Tudor" dollhouse on display at the museum will look familiar to most Kansas City residents.
In the 20th century children became more focused on imaginative play and dollhouses became more simple structures with more molded plastic pieces. But the houses never abandoned the image of a traditional nuclear family with Mom and Pop, Sis and Junior all living there together. In the late 1950s, Mattel's Barbie arrived and playing with dolls was revolutionized. It was the dawn of the TV-influenced toys.
Jackie Robinson Doll, 1950 Allied Grand Doll Mfg. Co. Inc., USA
Bebe, c. 1887, Jumeau, France
The museum's 21,000 miniature works represent all of the major contemporary miniature artists. Room settings, architectural structures, and decorative arts are meticulously rendered in 1:12 (one inch equals 12 inches) or smaller scale.
"Peek in on Louis XV's study at the Palace at Versailles, an Italian Renaissance studio, or a Boston Beacon Hill mansion, all without leaving Kansas City," Mundt said.
The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures is located at 5235 Oak St., Kansas City, MO 64112. 816-235-8000. Visit www.toyandminiaturemuseum.org. The museum is closed Tuesdays.
Leigh Elmore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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