Still Smokin': Firefighting toys

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Fire engine by Fisher-Price, dated 1968. Wood and plastic.

By the middle of the 19th century fire fighting was considered pretty serious and exciting business in the United States, and likewise a pretty good subject for children’s toys.

In the late 1850s and early 1860s the George W. Brown Company in Connecticut, among others, began producing tin toys including horse-drawn vehicles. Brown often featured both wagons and fire engines.

They were delightful if not exactly devoted to detail.

“In many ways, early tin fire engines were similar to early tin trains,” observed William S. Ayers, the author of American Toys in 1981. “Though they were based on actual prototypes, their features tended to be exaggerated and they had a fanciful rather than realistic appearance.”

Following Brown’s example of fire fighting toys in tin were the James Fallows and Company of Philadelphia, and the Althof, Bergmann and Company of New York, which added appealing hand painting to their tin material.

In the 1870s the W.S. Reed Toy Company of Leominster, Mass., went a slightly different route and produced a toy pumper and fire house with wood and lithographed paper. Meanwhile the Ives Corporation in Bridgeport, Conn., was one of the first toy firms to progress from tin to cast iron when it came to fire fighting items.

By 1885 the Leo Schlesinger Company of New York had combined painted and stenciled tinplate with steel and cast iron for their own dandy fire pumper.

“By the 1890s, after Ives and other manufacturers had mastered the intricacies of cast iron, thousands of nicely modeled cast-iron trains, horse-drawn wagons and fire engines flowed from the Ives factory straight to the distributors in New York,” notes Richard O’Brien author of The Story of American Toys.

Joining Ives and several others in the latter 1890s was the cast iron fire fighting toys of Kenton Hardware in Kenton, Ohio, and the cast iron pull toys of the Wilkins Toy Company of Keene, N.H., which featured four-wheeled vehicles powered by two horses.

Shortly after the turn of the century the Dent Hardware Company of Fullerton, Pa., was producing a painted cast iron fire patrol wagon which transported members of the company to the fire scene, and Kenton had moved on to specific model equipment fashioned after apparatus used to deal with fires in the tall buildings of America’s larger cities.

As author Ayres points out, these fire fighting toys had fully arrived and would be popular for a long time.

“The common source of original attraction was the real fire engines of the last quarter of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century,” he explains, “magnificently conceived and executed specimens with gleaming brass and mirror-like paint. The toys which were inspired by these real machines were hardly less elaborate and were made without interruption from the 1870s until the 1930s.”

In fact at least one company, Kenton in Ohio, resumed production of the earlier models in the late 1940s and into the middle 1950s.

During the turn of the century and beyond manufacturers often favored game little pumpers, which provided the pressure to force water through the fire hoses. These pumpers were nearly always billed as fire engines in toy company literature.

However the finest fire fighting toy of the era was the hook and ladder truck. Drawn by numerous horses, it generally was the largest of the company’s line and often started with basic cast iron and expanded to include wood and tin to go with it.

Hook and ladder trucks also became part of multiple sets such as the one produced by Bliss Manufacturing of Pawtucket, R.I., in early 1900 complete with hose, fireman, and pumperboiler. Another example was featured in the 1908 D.P. Clark catalog and included a chemical engine, fire engine, and hook and ladder truck. From the Ives Company in Bridgeport, it was offered as the best of “hill-climbing friction toys.”

Finally, shortly after 1910, still another material was added to the growing array of fire fighting toys. The Auburn Rubber Company of Auburn, Ind., began offering a range of rubber fire trucks and continued to do so for the first half of the 20th century.

Steel alone was not overlooked either. About the same time that Auburn was manufacturing the rubber fire truck, the John C. Turner Company of Wapakoneta, Ohio, was producing a totally steel version. The large steamer fire truck and several smaller trucks were designed to resemble the then-leading Ahrens Fox fire fighting equipment.

And while some toy firms tried to keep their toys looking like the current thing as often as possible, others took yet a different course.

As motor engines began replacing horse-drawn vehicles in the real world from 1915 into the 1920s, Hubley Manufacturing Company of Lancaster, Penn., was one outfit, which kept producing horse-drawn types. Hubley, Kenton and a few others stayed with the old designs well into the 1930s and beyond.

At perhaps the zenith of the toy fire truck popularity, Arcade Toys dazzled youngsters with their Mack Truck offering.

In 1927 the Arcade catalog proclaimed: “The toy Mack Fire Truck is sturdily built of cast iron and attractively finished in bright red enamel. The ladders, lanterns and tanks are finished in gold bronze. The ladder supports, hose reel and driver are nickel plated and the toll boxes are trimmed in gilt and black enamel.”

During the 1930s Arcade faced stiff competition from the Pressed Metal Company’s Sturdy toy made in Pawtucket, R.I., and Moline Press Steel Company’s Buddy L produced in Moline, Ill. Both firms racked up tremendous sales in toy fire trucks despite the Great Depression and its aftermath.

Arcade again captured the attention of the toy world in 1940 with a six-piece fire fighting set mounted in a box lavishly illustrated with a fire scene. The set included an ambulance along with the usual vehicles.

Despite such brilliant marketing strategy, Hubley rolled into the 1940s as the world’s largest manufacturer of cast iron toys, thanks in part to the successful sales of their own fire fighting vehicles.

There were major changes during the World War II years, including one of the first fully manufactured plastic fire trucks in 1945. The Banner Company of New York led by E .M. Pressner later produced the Lafrance Fire Truck in the 1950s before eventually going out of business.

“With the end of the war, freed-up supplies of steel, aluminum, and other manufacturing materials became available for peacetime use,” according to Charles Hansen, the author of The History of American Firefighting Toys.

“Established American toy companies such as Buddy L, Hubley, Marx and Structo were quick to get in the starting blocks and take off running to produce enough toy fire trucks to satisfy the pent-up demand. Many fire fighting toys of the late 1940s – like the trucks they modeled – were a continuation of the toys of the 1930s, but as the real fire trucks modernized so did the toys.”

The booming Marx Toy Company served as a good example with their offering in the 1948 Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog.

Their classy fire truck was of heavy gauge steel, red enamel finish, and had a loud siren and heavy duty clock spring motor equipped with brake. There were two ladders, two fire extinguishers and a “fire tower raised and lowered by gear and crank arrangement mounted on a swivel.” It was 14 inches long and retailed for $3.89.
During the 1950s, American and European toy firms held the forefront in production before slowing, giving ground to the Japanese. Fire trucks made in Japan during that period usually were of lithographed tin with friction wheels. They also offered fire chief vehicles fashioned after large American cars and directed specifically at the U.S. market.

By the 1960s, Japan had evolved into a world leader in toy production. Among their best sellers were the Nomura Toy Company’s fire chief vehicle featuring a colorful red car and a blue uniformed chief. Made of tin, it bore a hand-wound warning siren and included friction drive.

More Images:

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Cast iron fire pumper truck by Arcade Manufacturing Co. 1930s, painted and nickel plated.
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Auto fire engine from Hubley, circa 1933, cast iron.
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Kenton Hardware Company hook and ladder truck, cast iron and steel, 1920s.

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