Steam Toys: Antique Cast Iron Replicas Brought Engines Indoors
(Page 2 of 4)
American producer Weeden Mfg. entered the steam toy 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.
The Steam Toy 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.