Vintage Toys: Collecting board games

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This lot of five comic character board games sold for $325 at Bertoia Auctions, from the Donald Kaufman Collection, Part III. April 16, 2010. Games include: Walt & Skeezix Gasoline Alley Game. Graphic board, generic spinner no game and pieces. Box is (Exc. Cond.); Moon Mullins Game, generic board. Box is (Exc. Cond.); Harold Teen Game with generic board, spinner and game pieces. Box is (Exc. Cond.); Smitty Game. Generic board and game pieces. No spinner. Box has some damage on side pieces and some tape; Toonerville Trolley Game. No spinner and no game pieces. Box is (Exc.. Cond.). All games made by Milton Bradley. Photos courtesy LiveAuctioneers.com.

Vintage games are treasures in the attic

Throughout the year, radio talk show hosts invite me to be a guest on their broadcasts to discuss the nostalgia of collecting toys, and it’s a happy task. Interviews are a great opportunity to share this hobby with wide audiences and are fun, especially when the host opens up the telephone lines to the public.

On-air appraisals during these shows are a challenge because I can’t see the toy in question and have to rely on the caller’s description for identification. But they also uncover some fantastic toys that callers just “found in the attic.” For example, one caller really did dig a tin wind-up “Ham and Sam the Minstrel Team” toy out of her attic during the live broadcast. She had played with the toy as a child and kept it in its original package all these years. She was delighted to learn that the toy is worth more than $1,000 today.

Radio audiences have come up with everything from rare pressed steel, die-cast and Western cap pistols to “Lost in Space” toys, Japanese robots and everything else imaginable. But there is one toy type that I seem to encounter during every interview across the country: board games.

Board not bored

Games hold an unmistakable place in human history. The ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Chinese and Indian cultures all contributed games that are still played in various incarnations today. Games as collectibles, however, is a relatively new phenomenon and one that has gained considerable momentum in the decades following World War II.

Not surprisingly, the games produced in the decades preceding the war are some of the most valuable and desired by knowledgeable collectors. The pioneering game publishers are still household names.

When the McLoughlin Bros. established their game company in 1855, neither could have imagined that their line of children’s lithographed picture books, board books, paint books and games would become a pillar of the game industry. Early success with “Golden Egg” and “Bugle Horn or Robin Hood” led to the “Game of Old Maid” and “Mother Hubbard” in the 1870s. “Zimmer Baseball Game,” “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “Where’s Johnny” fueled the McLoughlin Bros. through the 1880s. In the 1890s, the firm released “Bulls and Bears,” the “Little Fireman Game” and the “Game of Bagatelle.”

Another publishing giant was Milton Bradley, whose success with the 1860 release “The Checkered Game of Life” led to the incorporation of Milton Bradley Co. in 1861 under the slogan, “Maker of the World’s Best Games.” The company released timely card and board games with themes familiar from novels and real news events like “Game of Robinson Crusoe” and “Bradley’s Telegraph Game.”

Milton Bradley Co. purchased McLoughlin Bros in 1920 and further positioned itself as a leading publisher by embracing the character toy craze of the Great Depression and releasing games based upon popular comic strip characters.

The third major player in the pre-war game industry was Parker Bros. Begun by George S. Parker with his 1883 release of “Banking,” the firm was incorporated as Parker Bros. in 1888 when his brother Charles came aboard. Their games were colorful and easy to play — a formula for success that Parker Bros. propelled with games including “When My Ship Comes In,” “The Game of Authors,” “Professional Game of Baseball,” “Lindy Flying Game,” “Winnie-the-Pooh” and many others.

Collecting tips

Paul Fink, a collector and dealer of games, is the contributor to the Games chapter of Toys & Prices 2006. (Toys & Prices 2010 is now available at shop.collect.com.) He began his collection with the card game Flinch in the 1970s, “I found all the editions and went on to other games,” he explained. “After the shelves were overflowing with a variety of games, I discovered that the transportation games remained on display.” Today, his collection is focused on pre-World War II auto, train, ship and aviation games.

With the variety of vintage games available, Fink advises new collectors to focus their collections early in their search. Collections can be organized by a variety of criteria including type (card, board, action games), subject matter (sports, character, travel), time period (Civil War, Victorian, pre- or post-World War I), company (Parker Bros., Selchow & Righter, McLoughlin Bros., Milton Bradley) or by any other criteria the collector can dream up.

Early games catch the eye of collectors for their stunning box art. “The cover art was always important for the sale of games,” Fink said. “Point of purchase graphics was a big incentive before mass advertising. The game companies sometimes changed covers annually on the same game in order to keep it fresh.”

Most often the artists responsible for these striking representations received no credit for their work. “It is rare that manufacturers used name artists — most of the artwork was done in-house by commercial artists, and covers that they did were unsigned. In its heyday, McLoughlin Bros. had 75 artists working on its staff,” Fink said.

The game industry was quick to follow popular fads and these games have a particular attraction for collectors today. Fink provided an example in the story of the game “Hop Off.” Parker Brothers put out the game in 1920, he said. “When Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in 1927, the game became ‘Lindy’s Hop Off.’ In my collection, I have about a dozen Lindbergh games, ‘Captain Hop Across,’ ‘Trip to Paris,’ ‘Hop Off,’ ‘Transatlantic Flight’ and ‘Wings,’ but none had the licensing to use the name Charles Lindbergh.”

Fink advises that the values of games are determined by four important factors, “rarity, subject matter, condition and completeness.”

For more information on collecting games, visit the Association of Games and Puzzle Collectors website at www.agpc.org, or visit Games and Puzzles at www.gamesandpuzzles.com.

You may also be interested in Robots an all-time classic of early postwar toys



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More Images:

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This McLoughlin Lost in the Woods Game sold for $325 at Noel Barrett's May 1, 2010, Antique Toys Advertising Americana auction. This very colorful, early board game measures 21 inches by 10 1/2 inches and is in very good to excellent (lid missing 1 long apron).

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