Leave it to Karen: Links in the Chein

Welcome to the first installment of “Leave it to Karen” in Antique Trader! It’s a pleasure to “talk toys” with such a knowledgeable group of collectors, and as always, I encourage an open dialogue on future toy topics.

This month’s topic began as an idea at the Atlantique City show back in 2006. Unfortunately, I shelved the idea because things came up, as they so often do, and when I finally decided to dust it off and write the article I learned that an opportunity passed that I’ll never have again.

Welcome to Atlantique City

I’d also like to extend a hearty welcome to the dealers and patrons of the Atlantique City show. I had the pleasure of serving as an appraiser in the Atlantique City Bookstore at the October 2006 show, and I enjoyed meeting all of the guests who brought in their toys for assessment. Toys of all kinds arrived at my table, including cast-iron vehicles, playsets, board games, and plenty of dolls (many thanks to the delightful Ellen Schroy for helping me with the dolls!). Karen-2 AT 3-19.jpg

These small Chein Mack trucks each measure 8 1/2 inches long. (L to R): The Army Truck, Moving & Storage Van, and the Ice Truck.  Photo courtesy Bob Smith.

Atlantique City became a classroom as I wandered the floor and discovered the dealers with vintage toys. Display cases filled with mint condition tin wind-ups, bell toys, and cast-iron horse-drawn fire pumpers were an amazing sight, but many also had their original boxes! I stopped and stared at pieces of toy history that I’d never seen, and struck up conversations with the dealers, who patiently answered my endless questions. Karen-3 AT 3-19.jpgThat’s the real appeal of Atlantique City for me – it’s a massive show that has the personal charm of your favorite local show.

This variation of the Chein Racer 52 has a rear fin bearing the “V8” emblem, indicating that it was likely produced in the late 1930s, $325. Photo courtesy Bob Smith.

Missed Opportunity

Among the outstanding vehicle toys I discovered at Atlantique City was a Hercules Ready-Mixed Concrete truck produced by the J. Chein Co. in the early 1930s. The truck isn’t a common find today, and I recalled using a photo of one in the latest edition of O’Brien’s Collecting Toy Cars & Trucks. One idea often leads to another, and as I wrote up my notes from the show, I included a reminder to talk to Bob Smith about Chein vehicles. I thought that the combination of Chein vehicles and a conversation with Smith would make for a lively column. Karen-5 AT 3-19.jpg

This tin six-window Chein Sedan bears the year “1928” on its license plate and is 8 1/2 inches long, $725. Photo courtesy Bob Smith.

A long-time contributor to the O’Brien’s titles, Smith contributed pricing analysis for a number of other chapters and countless photos of the toys in his amazing collection. He organized the Rochester Area Toy Show (RATS) and generously shared his encyclopedic knowledge of toys. Our all-too infrequent phone conversations were informative and fun.

Unfortunately, I put the Chein vehicles idea on the shelf as I carried on the day-to-day working of my books and the column. After more than a year had escaped my notice, I learned that Bob Smith had passed away in late 2007. His remarkable support of the hobby and my old toy research continues to inspire me, and I dedicate this month’s column to Bob Smith.

Chein History

Julius Chein founded J. Chein & Co. in 1903, the same year that he filed his first toy patent. The metal stamping firm produced dime store novelties, penny toys, and a variety of simple toy wagons. The company grew, and soon began to litho its designs to metal rather than hand-paint the toys. By 1910,Karen-1 AT 3-19.jpg expansion forced a move from Manhattan to Harrison, N.J., but it was World War One that increased the fortunes of the company and cemented its place in toy history.

The Hercules Coal truck was a Mack truck-based vehicle produced with a tin coal chute and tilting truck bed, $1,800. Photo courtesy Bob Smith.

F.W. Woolworth was Chein’s largest client, and the outbreak of World War One halted production of the German-made tin spinning tops that were mainstays of Woolworth’s toy section. Julius Chein capitalized on the void and initialized production of spinning tops — the bestsellers were offered each season until the company ceased making toys in the 1970s.

The war influenced Chein to design and market a toy cannon that shot a piece of cork, and the post-war period saw a limited expansion of the toy line to include a cash register and a locomotive. Julius Chein died in 1926, at the age of 52.

Karen-6 AT 3-19.jpgThe last line of toys Chein developed was a line of vehicle toys given life by the new company president, his widow, Elizabeth.

The Hercules Mack Wrecking Truck was first produced in 1928, $1,500. Photo courtesy Bob Smith.

Carrying on her husband’s work, Elizabeth registered the trademark name, “Hercules,” for a line of sheet metal toys and released the Hercules Crane by 1927. The daily rigors of running the company proved a bit much for her and she brought in her brother, Samuel Hoffman. Under Hoffman’s influence, the Hercules line expanded to include an impressive variety of large-scale trucks.

Identifying Chein Vehicles

The Chein cars/trucks produced in the 1920s/1930s are of two general types; the large Hercules line with its toys from 18” to 30” in length, and the non-Hercules toys that ranged from 6” to 9” long. Karen-4 AT 3-19.jpg

The Hercules Mack Ready-Mixed Concrete truck is one of the most desirable of the Hercules vehicles. The cement drum really rotates, $2,200. Photo courtesy Bob Smith.

The non-Hercules toys included a variety of sedans, racers, roadsters, a Touring Car with litho drivers and passengers, and even a Yellow Taxi. Identifying these toys as Chein creations is a simple matter of locating the Chein emblem. Some of the toys are marked on the door, others the rear fender, and others can be identified by the writing on their tires. “Chein Balloon Cord” was one of the phrases commonly used.

The early Hercules toys don’t have the Chein emblem on them, though many feature a “Hercules” emblem in their front grilles, so you’re left to examine the tires. Look for “Hercules,” “USA,” and “35×6” on the balloon tires. The Sand Crane is a notable exception as its wheels aren’t balloon-style tires and have no writing. Some of the early 1930s Hercules toys, like the Mack Concrete Truck, do include the Chein logo in addition to the Mack truck logo.

I’m sure that Bob Smith had even more tips and tricks to offer when spotting Chein vehicles — but if you have additional information to share, drop me a line and I’ll pass your suggestions along to our readers.