Monday, December 7, 2009

Cottage Industry, Vintage Christmas Toys, and WWII

Before WWII broke out (for the US - it had already started in Europe) with Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States imported vast amounts of the goods in our stores from Germany and Japan. Once we were at war with these countries, suddenly there was a dearth of products. US factories that might have picked up the slack were diverted to production of necessary items and defense material.

Retailers around the country began looking closer to home to source toys, dishes, printed items, novelties and other non-essentials that, then as now, made up the bulk of their profitable sales.

This created an opportunity boom for families everywhere. Then as now, families were always looking for ways to bring in extra income, whether by taking second jobs or producing sellable goods from home businesses.

Some bought small printing presses and set up businesses doing custom printing of business cards, Christmas cards, and wedding invitations out of a corner of their house. New potteries sprang up in areas that had good sources of clay in the ground. And some, like Nandy and Mema, used their home workshop to build toys.

With metal rationed, the raw materials available were perfect for small-scale manufacturing: wood, cloth, paper. Nandy started a business building small wooden toys that he sold to Kress Department Store, which was located downtown on Main Street. I don't think Kresses was still in business when the boys were little but if you have ever been in an Alco or a Dollar General, it was a lot like that. These stores were a mainstay and everyone shopped at them. Kress, Woolworths, Ben Franklins were the Walmart/K-Marts of their day.

So Nandy and Mema made little cars, trucks, trains out of wood. Nandy would cut out the pieces at night after work, and Mema would help paint and assemble them.

Do you remember that Mema was missing part of one of her thumbs? She helped with cutting some of the parts while Nandy was at work and one day the saw went through the wood and cut off her thumb, and into her pointer finger. She always told that when she called the hospital, they asked "Are you sure you cut it off?" to which she replied "Yes I am sure, I am in the house and my thumb is laying out in the garage on the saw!" Her first finger was always stiff after that - and Nandy did all the cutting with saws after that too!

Mama still has a few of the toys Nandy made at that time: a black Locomotive, and a little army jeep. The toys that the boys made with him in his workshop were from the same kinds of patterns, and same materials. These toys were a big success and, along with renting out the other half of their duplex, helped them pay off their mortgage ten years early.

Other people all over the country made toys and souveniers like this too. Some mixed glue and sawdust to form a "composition" material that they molded into toys, like the little battleships and planes pictured above. Some items were decorated with paint and others were woodburned with heated pokers or special woodburning tools.

These little items are readily available still in antique shops and flea markets - since they were unbranded, they have never been "hot" as collectibles. True to their era, they have an enduring charm and lasting appeal.

They also remind us of the unbounded creativity that allows us to find and make what we need in our own back yards.

1 comment:

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