Television commercials and Internet ads for Christmas and Hanukkah presents are ubiquitous today. But a century ago it was newspaper advertisements and engraved drawings in mail-order catalogs that depicted the newest toys and games, sparking children’s visions of what they might get. Toymakers knew that children’s play often reflected world events and far-away experiences. From the 1880s through the 1930s, toys and games about naval sailors captivated boys and girls in farmhouses and in row houses across the United States.
New inventions in machinery and manufacturing from the 1850s through the early 1900s allowed toys to change from wood and lithographed paper to colorfully painted tinplate or ceramic and fabric. Clockwork mechanisms and devices in dolls made the toys “real.” The rise of Sears, Roebuck & Company and other mail-order companies that could ship a toy from a Connecticut factory to the Great Plains brought those new toys to any small town’s post office. During the 1880s and 1890s, the rapid development of new steel ships of the American and world navies (and the resurgence of the U.S. Navy to become a world power by 1898) made naval toys popular.
The complexity, size, and intricacy of toys ranged from large luxury items to small “penny” toys sold at store cash registers. Children from wealthy families might realistically hope for an expensive tinplate wind-up naval ship about 20 to 24 inches long. One of the first known realistic tinplate naval ships was a U.S. Navy “monitor” offered by the George W. Brown Company of Connecticut about 1870. But intricate naval ships were expensive to produce, and few families could afford them. The Ives Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, began a new line of realistic tinplate ships during the 1910s, in response to a call from the Secretary of the Navy to inspire boys to become sailors. But Ives’ expensive toy ships had a different effect entirely. They contributed to the company’s bankruptcy in 1928.
Most families could only afford simpler toys or games that would fit within the small space of a child’s room or a tenement house. Some fathers and mothers had to make gifts for their children, using scraps from the parents’ work in metal foundries and clothing factories. For hours of imaginative play, many children found toys and games about Navy Sailors the perfect gift.
The National Museum of the American Sailor has a small collection of rare children’s toys and games depicting Sailors in American popular culture. Very little has been published in collectors’ books and auction catalogs about Navy Sailor-themed toys, particularly girls’ dolls. Do you know of Sailor-themed toys prior to 1930 that you’d like to tell about? Please comment on this article or send a note to GLNM@navy.mil. Meanwhile, we’d like to share our toys with you.