Turn your hourglass upside down to the year 1914. That year, besides being exactly 100 years past, was significant on a number of fronts:
•Most crucial was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, which triggered World War I.
•The Ford Motor Company, in business since 1903, reduced its employees’ workday from nine hours to eight and doubled their daily wage to $5.
•The Panama Canal officially opened.
•The traffic cone was invented, and the brassiere was patented.
•Mary Pickford starred in the film Hearts Adrift, and Charlie Chaplin made his film debut in Making a Living, later introducing his character of “The Tramp.”
•Pittsburgh Pirate Honus Wagner became the first baseball player in the twentieth century to accrue 3,000 hits, and the legendary Babe Ruth made his major league debut.
•The year 1914 saw the births of Jonas Salk, the developer of the polio vaccine; Jack LaLanne, founder of the modern physical fitness movement; Joe DiMaggio, baseball Hall of Fame center fielder; and Hedy Lamarr, movie star and inventor.
Also born in 1914 was my friend Helen Geiszler, who at 100 years old has a myriad of tales to tell. I recently interviewed Helen and wrote Part 1 of a four-part series on childhood in the 1910’s and 1920’s. In that first post, I discussed life at the time in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, and, in particular, life for little Helen Geiszler. In this post, Part 2, Helen and I discuss her childhood play and toys of the 1910’s and 1920’s.
Back in that era, the majority of toys were homemade. Stores did not often stock toys on their shelves except at Christmas time, and those that were available were generally small, inexpensive items. Knowing that Helen’s parents had little money to spend on toys, I began by asking her if she and her brothers often played with homemade toys. She did recall making paper dolls and cutting out dresses from old catalogs.
“We had jump ropes. I don’t think we ever had a bought one. We used to have a lot of fun. And Dad made a hobby horse when we kids were small.”
“My boys [brothers] used to make homemade airplanes some way out of a lightweight cardboard.” I thought that kites might have qualified as homemade toys in Helen’s family, but she countered, “It seems to me that they were bought. But our boys were all paper boys. They had to earn a few nickels, too.”
Helen had two good friends, Eleanor and Flo, who came from a family with twelve children. The three girls were always together, often playing at each others’ houses. Not surprisingly, her friends did not own many toys, either, so they took advantage of their imaginations in creating the homemade variety. Outdoors, they made do with whatever they could find to entertain themselves. “We would go up in the fields when we were little, and one field across from us had a lot of logs from when they cut down trees. We’d go up there and make rooms for our houses with those logs. The logs were the walls. Then we would get bricks and stones and that would be the stove and that would be the kitchen.”
Helen and her brother Roy sitting in the middle of Laketon Road on July 4, 1924. Don’t you just love the hats?
The field with all the logs was to the right.
“When we got older, like in your book, we had “gangs,” you know? The boys against the girls. We each had our own shanty, and we’d make root beer and hide it in the shanty. When the girls made it, we hid it underneath the boards, and the boys found it and stole it off us. Oooh, were we mad. They never would tell us where they hid it, either, and we never found it.”
I asked Helen if she had a favorite toy. “My one and only favorite toy was an infant baby doll with a long white dress. That was my pride and joy. We got one gift and that was it at Christmas. I remember I wanted an infant doll—not a grown-up doll but an infant doll—and that’s what I got. Its head was china [probably bisque], and the rest of it was stuffed cloth.”
Helen did have teddy bears, which came on the market in 1904 and were wildly popular in the 1910’s and 1920’s. You may know that teddy bears were named for Teddy Roosevelt after an incident during a hunting trip in Mississippi in 1902. He refused to shoot a tethered bear, and when that anecdote made the rounds of political cartoons, it started the ball rolling with a Brooklyn candy shop owner placing two “Teddy’s Bears” in his shop window. Their popularity induced the shop owner, Morris Michtom, to mass produce teddy bears, leading to the creation in 1910 of the now renowned Ideal Toy Company. Read more from the Theodore Roosevelt Association.
When Helen began naming toys in the Geiszler house that were more in the boys’ domain, I wondered why this was so until I reminded myself that Helen was the only girl in the family. Her brothers outnumbered her three to one. That being said, there was a larger variety of toys for boys than girls in the early decades of the twentieth century. Boys could choose from a plethora of toy vehicles such as steam engines, fire engines, boats, and airplanes after WWI.
Helen recalled, “The boys [her brothers] had cap guns. It seems to me one of them had a bb gun. Oh, yeah, they had spinning tops. That was boys’ stuff, I guess. Some boys had Lincoln Logs, Erector sets, Tinker toys.” Boomers who grew up building with Erector Sets may be interested to know that they were first put on the market in 1913. Tinkertoys were created in 1914, the year of Helen’s birth, and Lincoln Logs were first sold in 1919.
The more we discussed her childhood, the more Helen reminisced and reminded herself of other toys that her family had. Despite their economic challenges, they had many of the simple toys of the day. Among them were small cars, slingshots, marbles, yo-yos, Magic Slates, and Crayola crayons.
I asked Helen if her family had any board games. “Yeah, we had Parcheesi and Dominoes and checkers.” She continued to list other types of games found at the Geiszler house: “Pick Up Sticks. Tiddly Winks we had. Dad always liked to do that. He used to play with us, and he was good at it.”
Tiddly Winks, one of the popular crazes of the 1890’s, was a common game in the 1920’s.
Occasionally, Helen would be invited to the Turners’ house. One of the wealthiest families in Wilkinsburg, the Turners owned a very prosperous dairy farm and lived in a spacious yellow brick house just a few doors down from Helen on Laketon Road. The third floor of their home was a playroom for kids, and young Helen must have felt like Alice albeit climbing up the rabbit hole into a wonderland of toys.
Helen is a lively storyteller. At one point in the interview, I asked her if she was getting tired of talking. She laughed and admitted, “It seems it’s my best habit.” In 100-Year-Old Storyteller: Interview With Helen Geiszler Part 3, I share some of Helen’s sentimental stories, revealing that life in a “shack” with a drought of store-bought toys conjured some of the happiest memories in her 100 years.
Does anyone out there remember playing with other toys in the 1920’s? Did your parents or grandparents tell you stories of their childhoods in the early twentieth century?
For more highlights of 1914, read here.
Out of respect for their privacy, I have changed the names of those mentioned during the interview.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.
For more highlights of 1914,