Yesterday's Magazette

1- Construction Toys

Construction Toys

By Madonna Dries Christensen

What are you able to build with your blocks?

Castles and palaces, temples and docks.

Rain may keep raining, and others go roam,

But I can be happy and building at home.

— Robert Louis Stevenson, 1885

Block City, A Child’s Garden of Verses

A set of building blocks is often a child’s first toy. He stacks the blocks higher and higher until they finally topple. Amused and entertained, he begins again, repeating the process. Wooden blocks from long ago had animals and letters of the alphabet painted on the smooth sides, with alternate sides grooved so the pieces could be joined. Figuring out how to join the blocks required the child to think, and doing the task helped him master eye and hand coordination.

While rYM:Madonna:Toys1ummaging at a flea market, I noticed a box of stone building blocks in various shapes, sizes, and colors. Having never seen stone blocks, I purchased them. At home, I did some research and learned that in their heyday, the 1880s to just after World War I, the Anchor Stone Building Set was the most popular architectural construction toy. Adults enjoyed them as much as children did. Reportedly, Frank Lloyd Wright used them for laying out designs.

Blocks were invented (as far as we know) in about 1838 by German educator Friedrich Frobel as an educational tool for his kindergarten children. He chose the cube as the basic shape for his wooden blocks. From the cubes, he created associated shapes. Along about 1875, brothers Otto and Gustav Lilienthal became fascinated with toy blocks. They found that the light-weight wooden blocks toppled easily and did not have the look and feeling of real buildings. While experimenting with various materials, they came across a recipe in an old building handbook that combined sand, chalk and linseed oil. That suited their purpose.

In 1880, Anchor Stone Building Sets were made famous by the manufacturer Friedrich Richter of Rodolstadt in Thuringa. He used Frobel’s general idea and the Lilienthal brothers’ concept. Produced in three colors: cement yellow, brick red, and slate blue, the stone blocks came with instruction sheets and were marketed in basic sets, with supplemental pieces such as metal for bridges sold separately. Production ceased in the late fifties, and was resumed in 1994.

In today’s era of plastic and throwaway toys, there is a renewed interest in Anchor Stone Building Blocks. They represent a time when buildings were constructed to be permanent. A basic set of today’s product runs about $150.00. A complete set from the early 1900s is worth between $200-$250 in the collectible marketplace.

Other familiar names in construction toys were, and still are, Erector set, Tinker Toy, and Lincoln Logs, which all date back to the early part of the 20th century, and Lego, first made as wooden toys in 1932.

Erector sets were developed in 1913 by A.C. Gilbert’s company, Mysto Magic. Packed in a metal kit, an Erector set included metal girders and strips, pulleys, gears, and instruction sheets for erecting buildings and bridges. Some of the more elaborate sets included a motor.

Along about the same time in 1913, Charles Pajeau, a stonemason, developed Tinker Toys. The idea came to him as he watched children playing with sticks, pencils and spools of thread. He made a set of wooden spools with eight holes in the flat surface of the spool and one hole in the center, with sticks of various lengths to fit in the holes. He took his idea to the 1924 American Toy Fair, where it was well-received, and quickly became popular with kids and parents. Packaged in a cylinder shaped box, Tinker Toys are still made, and still popular, but they are no longer made of wood. Plastic Tinker Toys were introduced in the 1990s.

Lincoln Logs date back to 1916; the creation of John Lloyd Wright, an architect, and son of Frank Lloyd Wright. The grooved logs, eaves, and roof were packaged in a tin storage can. Lincoln Logs, too, are still made today.

Lego building blocks were created in 1932 by Ole Kirk Christiansen, a master carpenter in Billund, Denmark. He had a small factory that produced wood products: stepladders, ironing boards, and toys. The wooden blocks were given the name Lego in 1934. The name was derived from the first two letters of the Danish words “Leg Godt,” which means “play well.” Ironically, someone later realized that in Latin, the word lego means “I study” or “I put together.” In 1942, Christiansen’s factory burned to the ground. When it was rebuilt in 1947, the equipment included a plastic-injection molding machine, in which the now familiar interlocking Lego plastic pieces were made.

If you’re interested in collecting blocks from your particular childhood era, or any other, try looking on eBay. Prices are reasonable. Type in “building blocks” and take a stroll down Nostalgia Avenue.

The designers of the earliest building blocks knew that the ideal toy is one that is both fun and educational, with the child being aware of only the fun aspect. Simple building blocks of wood, stone, metal, plastic, rubber, cloth, and cardboard have filled the bill as far back as one can remember, and their popularity shows no sign of fading.

Vol. 37 No. 1 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Spring- 2010

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