They just don’t make toys like they used to. Can you think of a single toy in any store today that could withstand 665 pounds of pressure and still be in good enough condition to wrap and put under the Christmas tree before being subjected to a child’s regular use? Well, a Kingsbury cast iron toy aerial ladder truck could. It’s right there in black and white — a picture of three men standing on it in an advertisement.
Ruggedness, power and beauty were the qualities boasted of by the Kingsbury Toy Company, an operation Harry T. Kingsbury of Keene purchased in 1894 from James Wilkins. Wilkins started Wilkins Toy Company in a one-story wooden building in Keene in 1890. The Kingsbury Toy Company made toys through 1942, when steel became scarce during World War II and the company began manufacturing machine tools, as it still does today.
More than 250 of these toys, formerly on display in the lobby of the Kingsbury Corporation in Keene until the building was flooded in October, will be exhibited from Saturday, May 20, throughout the summer at the Historical Society of Cheshire County. An opening reception for “Because We Like Children, The Toys of Wilkins and Kingsbury, 1890-1942,” will be held Friday, May 19, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The Kingsbury Fund, a non-profit organization, has donated the toys to the museum for permanent display on the first floor.
It all began with Wilkins, who produced full-size clothes wringers (the company was first called the Triumph Wringer Company). When a mini-version of the wringer became popular, he decided to shift his business to making toys. He began with cast iron fire engines and trains, and Kingsbury largely expanded on what Wilkins had started.
“The variety of things they made is amazing,” said Alan Rumrill, executive director of the historical society. Just a sampling of what else was on the Kingsbury toy production line: steamboats, airplanes, military trucks, farm equipment, zeppelins, buses, cars, postal scales, automated coin banks, garden tools and cast iron stoves.
The three-men-on-a-firetruck test was only one of several Kingsbury used to demonstrate his toys’ durability. Another showed the strength of the toy vehicles’ rubber tires, which were advertised as being “volcanized to steel disc wheels” that wouldn’t scratch or come off. After the wheels turned for the equivalent of 3,500 miles, only one-third of the tire had worn away.
A lot of the beauty of these pieces comes from the paint jobs in all colors of the rainbow — even violet, on the sideboards of a toy Chrysler coupe with a rumble seat. In one advertisement for the toys (there are several to read throughout the exhibit), the paint is listed as being high-quality baking enamel or high-grade auto lacquer that was sprayed on. Many of the toys are still in pristine condition, and all but two pieces, Rumrill said, have original paint.
Kingsbury did more than make high-quality toys — the company was also on the cutting edge of technology. The construction of the mini-machines parallelled what was happening in the industries of the full-scale versions. Take the company’s line of toy Chrysler Airflow cars from the 1930s, for instance. When Chrysler came out with a different model each year, the company handed the specifications to Kingsbury before they went on the street so he could get started duplicating them in miniature for his toy line. Among those on display are a Chrysler town car, sedan and coupe. One Rumrill pointed out has a working radio and head- and taillights.
A selection of Kingsbury’s race cars sits in a separate case, exact reproductions of the cars driven by record holders. The sleek, bullet-like Golden Arrow racer, circa 1930 and finished in bright gold and bronze paint like the original, is a model of a car Major Seagrave used to set the land speed record of 231.5 miles per hour. The model was made under his approval and was endorsed by him.
The company’s toy airplanes followed developments in air travel, from zeppelins to tri-motor planes from the 1930s.
Kingsbury toys originally cost from 50 cents to $30 — today collectors have paid up to $1,500 for one piece.
Greg Bixby of Keene, who has worked for the Kingsbury Corporation since 1972, started collecting Kingsbury toys after admiring them for years in the lobby on his way in to work every day. His favorites are the company’s cast-iron horse-drawn vehicles, like fire engines and farm equipment. Rumrill said the earliest of these cast iron pieces in the exhibit are the most rare and will likely generate the most buzz. An early hook and ladder fire truck with a working bell is one such piece.
The most significant feature of Kingsbury toys that sets them apart from today’s toys is that they not only look like exact replicas of the real thing, a lot of them work like exact replicas, too. Rumrill knows first-hand, because he tested a lot of the toys before he put them in the cases.
A Silver Arrow cabin model airplane on display, with a wing span of 22 inches, was advertised as being able to fly 150 to 300 feet high. Bixby knows of a sprinkler farm wagon that sprinkles when filled with water and a mowing machine with a blade that moves back and forth as it’s pulled along. A motorboat in a case on the first floor, Rumrill said, takes off in the water when you pull the string at the rear. The list goes on.
What Bixby enjoys the most about Kingsbury toys — especially the farm toys — are how they are accurate down to the smallest details. “They are faithful in every way to the real thing, from the way the harness is cast onto the horse to the way the wagon is hitched.”
“Because We Like Children, The Toys of Wilkins and Kingsbury, 1890-1942,” will be on display from Saturday, May 20, through the summer. For more information, call 352-1895 or visit www.hsccnh.org.