Toy Novelties: Long After the Candy is Forgotten

April 30, 2010 at 8:33 am 1 comment

A few days ago Adam Greenblatt, a reporter with NPR.org, got in touch with me. He was working on a story about novelty iPhone apps, and wanted to talk about the history of toy novelties as a context for understanding our current obsession with apps that do useless but funny things like say “dude” over and over. It’s a great topic. Here’s a link to his article: “Stupid Stuff Your Smart Phone Can Do.”

I thought I would add a little bit to the story. Today, as one hundred years ago, Americans are suckers for the novelty, the latest gadget or toy or bauble that we just HAVE to have. But my sense is that the iPhone apps that Adam is interested in are totally disposable. We download them, show our friends a few times, then forget about them.

Novelties in the old days were not exactly the things you’d keep forever, not grandma’s china or anything like that.There were plenty of toy novelties that were probably seen as pretty disposable, like this 1919 jumping grasshopper made of brightly colored celluloid:

But in many cases, the selling of toy novelties alongside candy was really about having a longer, more lasting experience. The candy would be gone soon enough. But a truck or ball or necklace, well that was something you could hang on to for awhile. Candy toy novelties were like the trinket souvenirs that adults picked up at the World Fairs and Expositions that were the rage of the day: not worth so much, probably useless, but a tangible object that would recall and extend a fleeting pleasure.

The candy business and the toy novelty business really came up together. Machinery made it possible to produce candy faster and cheaper. And machinery, in many cases very similar machinery, made it possible to sell or give away little toy trinkets alongside that candy. Cracker Jacks started including metal dogs and rings with their candy coated popcorn in 1912. Other candies also included toy “gifts,” like this one from John H. Dockman and Son of Baltimore advertised in 1922:

Those kind of trinkets were common in candy stores catering to the kiddie trade, even as early as the 1890s. Tin trucks and miniature dolls could be offered as freebies to cultivate the loyalties of even the smallest customer. And candy shaped trucks and candy shaped dolls, made with molds and presses quite similar to the ones used for the metal toys, did double duty: toy and candy in one. Hard candies and suckers were frequently shaped like bunnies, fish, chickens, hands, trains, guns, hats, what have you. Here’s a 1922 toy shaped that recalls another exciting new technology, the automobile:

More substantial toy novelties or candy boxes added value to cheap candies, and the candies made the toys seem especially attractive. A while back, I wrote about one 10 cent novelty that aimed at the adult market, the 1913 Kandyscope (link here). The manufacturer promised double fun: gaze at the shifting kaleidescope of candy, then eat the candy up. Kandyscope shows that it wasn’t just children who might be interested in something fun. Adults were customers for other novelty items like balloons and pinwheels as well.

But the real toy novelty market was the kids. Here are fun tin boxes from Tin Decorating Co of Baltimore that could be filled with candies for an easy sale:

The real monetary value of these extras was probably a lot less than the perception of getting something extra, maybe even something for nothing. But even more appealing in the toy novelties was the idea that the short-lived pleasure of candy could be extended and made to last in a more permanent toy. That was the explicit appeal of the Candy Kum-Back Ball, a hollow candy-filled ball tethered on elastic that sold for 10 cents in 1922. It was “a toy that lasts, long after the candy is forgotten”:

Candy toys also became, in the years after World War I, another occasion to raise again the specter of the candy menace. By this time, pure food laws and improved marketing had quieted the accusations of “poison candy.” But that didn’t mean candy was safe, especially the doubly-fun sort of candy: candy watches, candy doggies, licorice in the shape of straws or pipes or pocket books, candy bead necklaces.

For example, here’s a licorice band watch which the kids will “eat up”:

Licorice and lollipops might be harmless materials in themselves. But when the kiddies started playing with their candy, and then stuffing it in their mouths, alarm bells would go off:

[These toys] are inveterate germ collectors when used as playthings, and a deadly menace to the health of the child when finally eaten.

Health officials like Robert Simmers, the Pennsylvania State Dairy and Food Commissioner, began raising the alarm, and reformers soon followed. Modern, up to date people of course would stay away from these things. But the editors of Confectioners Journal, sympathetic to the upstanding candy sellers who would never stoop to harm a child,  found someone easy enoug to blame:

They are mostly sold to elderly people who keep small candy stores near schoolhouses. These people have no knowledge of the nature of germs… They buy freely, knowing the candy will be popular with children, and sell with a clear conscience to the little tots.

I felt pretty smug when I read that. Those dirty old time candies! But then I remembered the huge collection of sweaty Hello Kitty candy necklaces my daughter amassed when she was three. And the ring lollipops. And the candy lipsticks. A deadly menace! Or just harmless candy toys…

Sources: “Is ‘Double Purpose’ Candy Harmful?”, Confectioners Journal November 1921, p. 121, and follow up August 1922, p. 120. Ad images from Confectioners Journal, from years immediately after WW I as indicated and: licorice watch, John Meuller Licorice Co., Cincinnati OH, 1922; candy tins, Tin  Decorating Company, Baltimore MD 1921.

Entry filed under: Children and Candy, WWI to WWII. Tags: , .

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Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure

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Candy in American Culture What is it about candy? Here you'll find the forgotten, the strange, the curious, the surprising. Our candy story, one post at a time.

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