At the beginning of the 1920s change was necessary for the toy industry to survive. The interruption in German imports due to the war made it impossible to bring in the machinery needed to make parts for manufacturing dolls and other toys. The challenge now was for the British industry to consolidate and review its position, and to rebuild using the best materials and technology that it could.
Despite the many shortages, toy manufacturers rose to the challenge. The soft toy industry attracted a number of talented designers and makers. Experiments with synthetic fibres had been taking place as early as the 19th century and although some of the new textiles were not yet ready, technology had been developed that enabled dolls’ clothing and cloth toy parts to be brightly coloured for the first time. Dean’s Rag Book Co. created a soft toy dog, Dismal Desmond, whose sad, droopy face featured in promotional projects and became the mascot of the England cricket team, as well as the ladies’ changing rooms at Wimbledon. Chad Valley began to make good quality rag dolls, basing some of the designs on drawings of children by Mabel Lucy Attwell.
Among the most outstanding successes of the 1920s were the transport toys; miniature planes, boats, cars and trains. In real life ‘modern’ transport was still a relatively new luxury and people found the possibility of travelling to more destinations at greater speed irresistibly fascinating. In many ways the 1920s and 1930s were the golden age of trains for the toy industry, triggering a collecting craze which survives to this day. Model trains replaced, in great part, the clockwork toys that had been preferred before 1914.
Two great names stand out as market leaders in train production in the 1920s; Frank Hornby and Wenham Bassett-Lowke. Bassett-Lowke was a connoisseur of modern and industrial design and a pre-eminent supplier of model railway and model engineering systems in Britain between 1900 and 1965. He is one of the most important names in the history of 20th century toy manufacture. Frank Hornby’s Meccano factory had been dedicated to government work during the First World War and it was during this time that Hornby started to experiment with model trains. In the 1920s he launched the first Hornby trains, ‘the new idea in clockwork trains’. These early trains were sold as kits that were intended for self-assembly, different from the pre-built German models. Train collectors, children and adults alike, took this new hobby seriously, requiring good standards of accuracy. In 1925 Hornby launched the electric train set which also became very popular. Cheaper trains sold under the name Trix were made by Bassett-Lowke, who sought the highest standards of accuracy in train production, in association with Hornby.
After trains came planes, boats and cars. The main British model plane was FROG (Flies Right Off the Ground). Boats and yachts had been familiar and popular toys throughout the 19th century and early toy boats, including Noah’s Arks, were often made for use with or without water. Wooden pull-along boats with large wheels made for use in the home continued to be manufactured by Lines Brothers in the 1920s. Sailing boats and graceful yachts were designed by expert boat builders. Among the other sensations of the time were the landspeed record-breaking cars such as Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird, which reached a speed of 206.956 mph at Daytona Beach, Florida in 1928. Toy copies were made by companies like The Kingsbury Manufactuing Co. in the US during the late 1920s and although not quite accurate they were great fun and demonstrated the streamlined design of the real thing.
For those who could not afford the new toys, the old ones were still being made. Jokes, puzzles, magic tricks and clockwork toys were cheap and popular. Toys were still very much gender oriented with girls playing with soft toys, sewing kits, dolls, tea sets, cookers and other miniature domestic appliances, as well as dolls’ houses where families could afford them. Boys were given realistic chemistry, electrical, telegraphy, radio crystal and engineering sets. Under the heading ‘educational toys’ fell miniature post offices, shops, printing kits, typewriters, picture cubes and jigsaw puzzles.
Board games such as Ludo and Snakes and Ladders were other old favourites. These would often be played while listening to the radio. The BBC had started to transmit radio programmes in November 1922 and families would gather round to listen to the latest news in much the same way that families watch television today. The first public demonstration of television was held at Selfridges in London in 1925. In 1927 the ‘talkies’ arrived from the US and quickly replaced the earlier silent screen cinema. The television and cinema were poised to make huge changes to the life of the average family in the coming decades, however outdoor life was still encouraged for children, and toy catalogues at the time were full of advertisements for outdoor toys including scooters and bicycles. The most popular outdoor craze was the pogo stick, which sold by the million world-wide.