As an Art History major in college, I was asked to read a great deal of literary criticism and came to understand that a broad range of academic theory – be it philosophical, political, sociological, etymological – could and should be applied to art and material culture in order to fully explore and understand the context in which an object is/was created. The most easily applicable term for the body of texts that analyze aspects of culture in this multifaceted way is “cultural criticism.” One of the greatest cultural critics of the 20th century was Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish essayist, whose most famous work “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), deals with complicated and still highly relevant issues such as of the aestheticization of politics, the secularization of culture in the West, and related complex concepts of authenticity and ritual as they relate to the production of and engagement with material culture. The depth, breadth, and range of Benjamin’s work is truly stunning. Essay titles include “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “Some Reflections on Kafka,” “Notes on the Theory of Gambling,” “Berlin Childhood around 1900,” “Reflections on Radio,” “News about Flowers,” “Theories of German Fascism,” “Chaplin in Retrospect,” “Theory of Distraction,” and “Mickey Mouse.” Such a list is perhaps helpful in understanding just how broad and how many topics fall under the umbrella term “culture.”
To be clear, my hope is not to turn this blog into a rigorous intellectual exercise. However, I have a personal love for Benjamin’s eclectic writings and although the discussion of Benjamin’s work may seem out of place in a blog such as this, when considering the wide range of material objects that an auction house such as Witherell’s typically receives and presents to the public, I think we can begin to see the relevance of Benjamin’s ideas and cultural theory in general.
This February, Witherell’s Third Thursday Auction has returned with over 350 lots that include a vast array of objects from fine art, photographs, and glass sculpture to jewelry, pottery, antique weaponry, vintage liquor bottles, and comic books. This sale perfectly represents the wide variety of items that fall under the category of cultural material. The auction will close with an incredible collection of classic tin toys. From monkeys, bears, bunnies, and ladybugs to clowns, Santas, and Donald Ducks, each of these fun, colorful toys is a reminder of a happy childhood and seemingly simpler times. Tin toys such as these recall a time before computers, iPads, and cell phones, before television and the Internet became so pervasive in our lives when children depended on each other and their imaginations to create their own entertainment.
The charm of these top quality vintage tin toys (some sold with their original boxes) is three-fold: they appeal to our sense of nostalgia for simpler days of childhood and pre-silicon chip eras, their wind-up and other mechanical actions are clever and delightful, and many of them exhibit vibrant art details and designs that go way beyond basic representation of the figures. Some of the “character” toys are specific to popular culture imagery at the time of production and may be recognizable to the collector of a certain age. The mechanical action and themes of Dandy the Happy Drumming Pup and Mike Mallard the Climbing Fireman are fanciful and ingenious, designed not just to fascinate but to elicit laughter and joy. The rooster, peacock and singing bird (all in stunning condition) display brilliantly colored graphics in a highly detailed and artistic way that can truly be appreciated by non-toy enthusiasts.
In 1928, Walter Benjamin wrote an article entitled “The Toy Exhibition at the Märkisches Museum.” As the title suggests, it contains Benjamin’s reflections on the collection of toys, most of which he specifies were made in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that was on display at a museum in Berlin that year. He writes of dolls and puppets, of parlor games and train sets, and also of tin toys. He explains that while the exhibition is meant to showcase what a typical Berlin toy cabinet might look like, particular importance is placed upon those toys which have survived and been passed down through generations. Benjamin also makes mention of the other visitors: “‘You can’t find toys like that anymore’ is often what you hear adults saying when they encounter old toys.” Sound familiar?
The universal truth of nostalgia is striking, perhaps because it feels so poignantly personal when we experience it. Benjamin is writing in 1928, nearly 100 years ago. This early date is driven home when he reminds his contemporary readers that it was really only in the Victorian Era that people began to see children as a distinctive class of person, “not just men and women on a reduced scale.” Benjamin’s writing is not so far removed from the 19th century development of “childhood” in the West, yet clearly by the early 20th century this special sense of nostalgia – looking back on and longing for the particular moment of one’s youth – has already set in deeply.
It is inevitable and natural that when confronted with material evidence and loved parts of our past, we begin to long for those sweet, simpler times. The toys in this auction are primarily from the 1950s and 1960s. A simple gesture to a plethora of media such as “Happy Days,” “Grease,” and “American Graffiti,” is evidence enough of how this period in American history has come and in many ways continues to be regarded as “the good old days.” There is an obvious, but not easily communicable wholesomeness to these toys. They remind me of Christmas. Benjamin notes this as well in his essay on toys: “We all know the picture of the family gathered beneath the Christmas tree, father engrossed in playing with the toy train he has given his son.” Perhaps what I’m thinking of is more accurately described as the “idea” of Christmas, the film A Christmas Story comes to mind, speaking of children, family, and toys. However, these clever and striking tin toys have more than just sentimental value and while our first instinct may be to reflect wistfully on carefree youth, it is important for us to understand that, like all of the items featured in these third Thursday blogs, these particular toys are also unique witnesses to history and have cultural relevance to their production and audience.
The very first tin or tinplate toys were produced in the mid 19th century. Originally assembled and painted by hand, these toys were created as cheap, but still sturdy substitutes for traditional wood and heavy cast-iron toys. The light weight of these new toys also allowed for much easier shipping and, thus, easier export of toys in large quantities. The rise of the tin toy in the Victorian Era coincided with the emergence of modern attitudes towards children and an increasing awareness of the concept of childhood. The spring-activated toy was developed in 1850s and by the 1880s a process called off-set lithography was being used to decorate toys. Offset lithography is a process by which an inked image is transferred using a rubber blanket or roller onto the printing surface — in this case a tin sheet. For tin toys, each individual component was printed with the corresponding design and small tabs on the tin pieces allowed for quick and easy assembly of the final three-dimensional toy. Later on, other decorative elements such as small accessory pieces, fabric and sometimes materials meant to imitate fur were used to add further detail, decoration, and realism to toys.
From the mid-19th to the beginning of the 20th century, Germany (where spring-activated toys originated) was the world’s leading manufacturer of tin toys. One of the best-known German toy producers during this early period was Ernest Paul Lehmann, who purportedly exported over 90 percent of the toys his company manufactured. Although today the name is perhaps most famously associated with the railway models known as LBG trains (for Lehmann Gross Bahn or “Lehmann Big Train”), his early tin toys are still admired by collectors all over the world.
By the turn of the last century, companies in England and France began manufacturing tin toys as well. In England these kinds of toys were typically sold for one or two pence and earned the name “penny toys” as a result. Despite competition from other European manufacturers, German bands like Issmayer and the Schuco Toy Co. continued to dominate the market. However, by the 1920s (due to a number of political and economic influences) German dominance started to wane and American manufacturers began to lead the international toy market. Louis Marx and Company is the most well known of the U.S. firms that rose to prominence during this period. Founded in 1919, Marx’s basic aim was to maintain a consistently high level of product quality despite the low price and large volume of toys the company manufactured each year. The company was incredibly successful. Marx toys sold well even during the Depression and they were able to maintain their success and reputation well into the 1960s.
A number of global political and economic factors arising from the world wars would change the course of tin toy production and the international toy market. Anti-German sentiment stemming from World War I directly contributed to the increased success of American toy manufacturers in the 1910s and early 1920s. U.S. companies like Marx were able to meet these increasing demands while keeping costs low because America was rich with natural resources of iron and, contrary to the term “tin toy,” steel (an alloy of iron and carbon) was often the main component used to make these popular toys. As early as the end of the 19th century color lithography had become increasingly affordable and, by the 1930s, the development of the industrial assembly line along with technological advancements in the mechanization of the lithographic printing process, meant that fun and colorful toys could be made more easily, quickly, and inexpensively than ever before.
Production of tin toys in America halted during World War II when the material resources used to make such toys were redirected towards the war effort (primarily for equipment, arms, and munitions manufacture). Although many tin toy companies shut down permanently during this period, others like the Louis and Marx Company resumed tin toy production after the war. This period saw the increase in automobile and aviation themed toys, inspired by the wars as well as the dawning jet and space ages.
In the period directly after World War II, tin toy production moved quite quickly and dramatically from America to Japan. During U.S. occupation and under the Marshall Plan, Japanese companies began manufacturing these toys at considerably lower costs, which were exported to America where they were sold at a greater profit margin. Some American companies even began moving their production to Japan. The most famous example of this is the popular Linemar toys, Linemar being the trade name for Marx products made in Japan. The 1950s saw the emergence of the friction motor and battery operated toys. Japan would remain the leading producer of tin toys until the 1960s when cheaper and more child-friendly plastic toys took over, ending the age of the tin toy.
Nostalgia is a term used to express sentimentality for the past, usually associated with a period, person, or place and generally with happier times. The collection of toys in this Thursday auction seems to me the perfect embodiment of nostalgia. Not only do many of the items date from the 1950s and 1960s, the period perceived to be the peak of the “good old days,” but also toys by their very nature seem to be inherently and eternally nostalgic to adults. When confronted with such vivid evidence of childhood, we are overcome with the desire to return to that place and that familiar, beautifully simple time. Writing during the devastating period in Germany after World War I, Benjamin picks up on this: “The desire to make light of an unbearable life has been a major factor in the growing interest in children’s games and children’s books since the end of the war.” Benjamin observes the apparent ageless truth of longing for happier days and the soothing liberation of childhood play.
Walter Benjamin’s life was tragically cut short when he died in 1940 at the age of 48, a consequence of the rise of Hitler in Germany and the German occupation of France during World War II. After multiple failed attempts to escape Europe by both legal and illegal means, and facing the helplessness and hopelessness of his situation, Benjamin took his own life in a small village along the French/Spanish border. As a result, we are deprived of reading all of the wonderful writings Benjamin surely would have produced had he lived longer and seen more of the 20th century. Nevertheless, the incredible work he did leave behind touched upon many aspects of life and also touched (and continue to touch) the lives and minds of many. I think he would have interesting thoughts about our current modes of communication, artistic expression, consumerism, and material culture. He would certainly not be surprised by our continued attraction to objects of beauty and items that recall a simpler time and our childhood pursuits.