Today, when we turn over an item in our stores or elsewhere, we are most likely to see Made In China. Wow, an item Made in China, when I was a kid, was not the quality items that were sought after. It was a Made in America item that lasted the longest whether in the kitchen, parlor, play yard or in the workshop. Connecticut was a leader in many manufactured items one of which comes to mind as we watch the Antiques Road Show; the Connecticut Clock. The 18th century clockmaker was considered to be the most skilled craftsman in any community and in Connecticut there were a significant number of fine tall case clockmakers.
Only the wealthy, in the last decade of the 18th century, could afford a tall case clock but with increasing households wanting to acquire time pieces for their homes, enterprising Connecticut clock makers sought ways to reduce the costs of clock making to make them accessible to middle class families. Gideon Roberts of Bristol was a leader and a master wooden works maker. Eli Terry of Plymouth pioneered the development of interchangeable parts for the manufacturing process and his pillar and scroll 30 hour clocks, patented in 1816, sold for $15.00, producing hundreds of thousands over a number of years.
Seth Thomas changed his wooden works to brass and by 1850 was producing 24,000 brass movement clocks annually. Thomas’ brass rolling mill produced 170 tons of brass settings each year for his own use and for other makers in Plymouth Hollow which was renamed Thomaston in 1875. The enormous clock at Grand Central terminal was manufactured by his company.
A significant figure in Connecticut clock making was Chauncey Jerome. His specialty was an eight-day shelf clock with brass movement. He survived the financial panic of 1837-38 but he could not survive a financial downturn when he was flim-flamed by P.T. Barnum of Bridgeport forcing him to declare bankruptcy. Having learned his trade, he opened a small shop in Bristol using the first circular saw seen in Bristol. By 1837 his company was selling more clocks than any of his competitors, selling a one-day wood-cased clock for six dollars.
By 1841, the company was showing a profit of $35,000 and he moved the company to St. John Street in New Haven. In 1850, Jerome formed another company which became known as the New Haven Clock Co. producing 444,000 clocks and timepieces annually. His future should have been secure except for the flim flam spoken of earlier. In 1855 he bought out a failed Bridgeport clock company controlled by P.T. Barnum which wiped him out financially leaving him bankrupt. Although he never recovered his loss, he made a historic contribution to his industry when he substituted brass works for wooden works.
The development of mass produced, inexpensive brass and steel clock mechanisms led to the development of clockwork toys. George Brown brought these two products together, being credited as the maker of the first clockwork toy, a tin locomotive in 1856. The Forestville section of Bristol was known also for its tin makers with the first tin factory opening in nearby Berlin in the mid 18th century and 100 years later, there were tin shops in New Britain, Meriden, Clinton and Cromwell, selling wares up and down the eastern seaboard. The jingle jangle of the Yankee Peddler could be heard for a long distance announcing to the lady of the house that he was on his way with the new, “can’t do without” tin ware for her household’s necessities.
George manufactured mechanical and non-mechanical tin toys as well as clocks and by 1869 he joined forces with the J & E Seven’s Company of Cromwell specializing in cast iron toys and banks well sought after today. Among the tin toys in collections today are trains, steamboats, horse drawn wagons, animals on wheeled platforms, miniature pails and cups, circus animals and the like. He stayed with the toys until 1880 when he returned to the Bristol Brass Co., a more lucrative endeavor for him; however with his mechanical mind and artist hand he manufactured some of the most prized American toys in collections today.
Toys continued to thrive with William Barton in East Hampton using bells made for toys that could be pushed and pulled. The first toy was a simple chime which revolved on two wheels with later designs of animals kicking bells, patriotic figures ringing bells and just plain revolving chimes. By 1920 the company turned to making colorful lithographed paper-on-wood toys. The N.N. Hill Company and Watrous Manufacturing Company also made bells and bell toys in East Hampton with the Hill Company having a contract to produce Disney characters in the 1930s.
We can’t forget our ever-present A.C. Gilbert Company in New Haven. What a company it was, manufacturing hugely successful Erector Sets found under almost every Christmas tree to say nothing of its American flyer train sets. Alfred Carlton Gilbert was a multi-talented inventor who, as a child, loved magic and as a grown-up completed medical school at Yale University, paying part of his expenses by performing as a magician and manufacturing magic kits for children.
Deciding not to pursue his medical career he turned to developing his toy business. Observing construction workers assembling metal framing for a power-line tower in 1909, Gilbert conceived the idea of creating a construction toy for children with Erector Sets becoming the standard toy all over the country. His imagination carried him to glass blowing kits, chemistry sets, an Atomic Lab complete with Geiger counter and radioactive particles. Yipes. The first artificial heart made by Dr. William Sewell in 1949 had parts from erector sets and the design for the Disneyland ride Soarin’ used Erector set parts for its prototype.
It would not be a complete story on the evolution of toys without mentioning Edward Ives who made mechanical toys, mostly of tin, colorfully stenciled and painted being operated by a sturdy brass clockwork mechanism made by the New Haven Clock Co. During the 1870s Ives clockwork toys gained a reputation for quality and soon dominated the market, his greatest new product was a trackless tin locomotive capturing the imagination of small boys as they watched the iron monster trains rolling though Bridgeport, the home of Ives toys. These trackless tin locomotives could run across the parlor carpet and there was even a model that could puff smoke when a lit cigarette was place in its smoke stack!
The Reeves Manufacturing Company produced one of the earliest U.S. produced “amusement park” toys advertising in 1926. Known as the Air-E-Go-Round, this triple monoplane mechanical merry go-round was manufactured in Milford. Although as a toy maker, the Reeves Company did not last too long; the scarcity of their toys is evidence of their short-lived role as a toy manufacturer. The toy is lithographed tinplate with a four-sided tower and three monoplanes with spinning propellers attached to the top. A thumb lever, when pressed down, sends the planes into the air.
The ingenuity of the 19th century Connecticut clock makers led America’s early industrialization with the development of brass movements for clocks leading to the development of clockwork toys and toys of all sorts in a variety of materials. The small state of Connecticut was not only the leader in clock making, but also in toy making in the 19th century.