BASEMENT BOOK SHELF: “Toys: 100 Years of All-American Toy Ads” by Jim Heimann and Steven Heller

As a child of the 1970s, one annual tradition my family had was the Sears Wishbook. This huge catalog would arrive in the mail and my brothers and I could not wait to go through the immense toy section, thinking about what we wanted for Christmas. The excitement of looking through the full-color pictures is one I still remember fondly to this day. “Toys: 100 Years of All-American Toy Ads,” by Jim Heimann and Steven Heller, actually helped bring those feelings back to me.

Though “Toys” is not set up like the Wishbook, the memories did come flooding in. This book is made up of 100 years of All-American Toy ads. Up until the 20th century, children’s play was not a subject that demanded much attention. While objects that entertained children have been present from ancient history, it was only with industrial mass production―and a developing urban middle class―that toys appeared more frequently. As playthings began to display a robust economic performance, an industry rose to provide this new market with the objects of their desire. European manufacturers dominated the toy market, with Germany, in particular, supplying the American market with the bulk of both singular and mass-produced products. World War I ended its dominance, and by the 1920s, bolstered by American ingenuity and an ever-growing consumer culture supported by the media empires of newspapers, radio, and television, American toys became ubiquitous in the consumer market.

Ranging from the simple to the complex, children were inundated with a commodity to be wished for and sold to by the millions. From frilly dolls to science sets, children were marketed to with gusto, first through magazines and comic books and later through television. Toys fell along familiar gender lines all while being developed with the unspoken subtext of stimulating developing minds and being vehicles of problem solving with educational value.

If the first part of the 20th century represented the rise of toys in America, the postwar period signaled a market unleashed by the baby boom. That one event gained traction for the toy industry and propelled it to its current state. Unforeseen was the next chapter in the industry―the advancement of the technical revolution―which would create another dimension of toy products that would captivate both children and adults as one century blended into the next.

In the world of toy production, the multimillion dollar industry took the advertising of its product seriously, and toy manufacturers inundated customers with their latest product via trade journals. In New York City, the hub of the toy industry for most of the 20th century, annual trade shows introduced a deluge of new playthings to the buying public. Frisbees, board games, baseball mitts, Hula-Hoops, air rifles, video games, dolls, and miniature trains were all served up to generations of children, cementing forever the memories of playtime.

Filled with a Santa’s sack full of surprises, Toys. 100 Years of All-American Toy Ads takes us down the aisles of America’s toy stores delivering the favorites and forgotten memories of toys that were hugged and hoarded, saved and disposed of, and now finally brought back in their pristine glory. Once again it’s Christmas, your birthday, and a reward for a job well-done.

Toys: 100 Years of All-American Toy Ads” is a huge book, clocking in at 528 high-gloss pages. This is a book that I know I will be looking at over-and-over again and there is no doubt that the quality will hold up for a very long time. Some of the ads I actually remember from the pages of my favorite comic books at the time.

Going through the history of toys, it was interesting with how the evolved. Boys often had realistic looking guns or action figures. Girls often had things designed to develop them into housewives. Things like vacuum cleaners and working ovens were very dominant. The text is also presented in English, Dutch and French, which should increase the appeal of this book to a wider audience.

I cannot recommend “Toys: 100 Years of All-American Toy Ads” enough. This is a book you will cherish for years to come, just like your memories from your childhood. Don’t forget to read the other blogs in my BASEMENT BOOK SHELF series.

~David Albaugh

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