Notes and Comments / Nouvelles brèves - The Art and History of Canadian Toys

Notes and Comments / Nouvelles brèves

The Art and History of Canadian Toys

David R. Gray
Canadian Museum of Nature

1 As a collector of toy boats in the days before Malcolm Forbes sent the prices of toys to the far horizon, I became aware of the scarcity of Canadian-made toy boats. This was surprising, given our marine heritage, but I soon realized that the scarcity was not just in the world of toy boats but applied to all Canadian toys. Even more surprising was the lack of information on even the few well-known Canadian toy manufacturers. In the many books on toys produced in the United States or in Europe, there was barely a word on things Canadian. Looking into the situation I found that apart from articles written by Janet Holmes, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, and Evelyn Strahlendorfs book on Canadian dolls, there has been virtually nothing written about Canadian toys. At the moment, there appears to be no one researching the history of Canadian toys. For the last few years I have been trying to fill that gap.

2 My broad objectives are to research the history of all Canadian companies that manufactured toys, to write articles on Canadian toys and toymakers, and at some point, to compile these histories into a publishable form, perhaps as a book. I also hope to produce the material necessary for an exhibit of Canadian toys that could perhaps travel throughout Canada.

3 For the moment, because this project (especially as a purely avocational activity) is really too much for one person, I am concentrating my efforts on the companies that made transportation toys: cars, trucks, airplanes, and boats. Within that restriction I am also concentrating on the design of the toy in relation to demand, art, "real" objects and history. Since there is no way I can devote enough time to this project to cover all of the Canadian manufacturers at once, I have started my investigation with a few companies that were active from just before World War II. For these companies it is still possible to interview people who were directly involved, though unfortunately several key people have died recently, before I was able to interview them.

4 The first company on my list is the well known line of mainly toy trucks called "Lincoln Toys," of Windsor, Ontario. From telephone contacts based on research in the National Archives, in particular the old city directories, I was able to contact one of the founding owners of Windsor Steel and Lincoln Specialties, the makers and distributors of Lincoln Toys, from who I received a great deal of useful and fascinating information.

5 In February 19901 received the $500 Brian O'Brien Bursary from the Canadian Toy Collectors Society to continue my research on these Canadian toys. In May I visited Leamington, Windsor and Tilbury and interviewed several former employees of both Windsor Steel and Ellwood Toys, the two manufacturers of toys distributed by Lincoln Specialties. I spent some time in the Windsor City Hall, Library, and Archives and in one of the former homes of Lincoln Toys. In Tilbury I visited the site of the Toy Factory (which burned down in 1986) with the members of the Ellwood family and interviewed several people connected with the production of Lil' Beaver Trucks (a division of Irwin Toys) after Lincoln Toys went out of business. These interviews and research in the Tilbury Library produced a new lead on the later history of the Lincoln-Lil' Beaver toy line and its final demise in the 1960s.

6 I have also begun interviewing people involved with the Reliable Toy Company of Toronto, once the largest toy factory in the British Empire. Reliable is an important target because of its size and range of production as well as having been in the forefront of the Canadian plastics industry.

7 The purpose of this note is to provide information on my research for those with similar interests and to seek out others who might be able to help in compiling the history of Canada's few original toy-manufacturing companies. One special need is for access to any catalogues of toys made by any of the Canadian companies. Canadian catalogues for reference are scarce and I would really appreciate direction to any new sources.

8 In the meantime, I am continuing the collection of Canadian-made toys, related information and artifacts including catalogues, company records and history, manufacturing techniques, and personal reminiscences of individuals involved in the Canadian toy-making industry. I am learning a great deal, I am enjoying the research, and I am confirming my impression that there is a whole chapter of Canadian industrial and social history that is being lost even as we try our best to record it. David Gray, R.R. #3, Metcalfe, Ont., K0A 2P0, 613 821-2640 evenings; 613 954-2663 days.