By Maddie Orton
Way before Hatchimals and Tickle-Me-Elmo, New Jersey was one of the top five states for toy production. Since the 1960s, those companies have nearly disappeared, but not without leaving their mark on the industry. These innovations are a big focus of Toy World: an exhibit now on display at the New Jersey State Museum.
“The earliest toys are in the turn of the 20th century like Thomas Edison’s talking doll that he created in the 1880s,” said Curator Nicholas Ciotola. “In the post-World War II period, you see this transition from toys made of wood and metal into modern-day plastics. That innovation happened right here in New Jersey.”
Nearly 200 toys from over 50 companies like J. Chein & Co., RemCo, and Lionel Electric Trains are on display. The toys were pulled from the museum’s permanent collection and acquired through auctions, eBay and loans.
Looking at the colorful tin and small pieces, perhaps the most obvious difference between then and now is how far safety measures have come.
“So, it was a steam engine — a live steam engine,” said Ciotola of one of the toys on display. “You would fill the tank with ethanol or alcohol, you would light it on fire [with] a wick, and it would boil water in a boiler, and it would then producer steam and power the train forward.”
Ciotola also compiled 30 minutes worth of New Jersey toy commercials from the ’50s and ’60s to add context to the playthings.
“The exhibit really looks at toys, but toys are the medium in which we explore aspects of American history and aspects of New Jersey history,” he explained.
A commercial on the antique TV touts: “With Suzy Homemaker you can entertain, wash dishes, clean house, launder, iron, bake all this and always look lovely.”
“Interestingly, the name Suzy Homemaker, in that time, 1960s, think about what’s going on,” reminded Ciotola. “There’s pushback from the feminist movement against this toy.”
While you can’t play with antique toys, the exhibit is still interactive. There are Legos, building blocks and a place to post a memory of your favorite childhood toy.
Some of the toys will no doubt be familiar — characters like the Lone Ranger, Dick Tracy, Li’l Abner and Popeye make appearances. And some will leave you scratching your head: before George Washington Bridge traffic was all the rage, the fun-filled game of Lincoln Tunnel Traffic.