Vintage Toys

The noun “tinker” can mean a number of different things, as might be expected of a word bandied about for so many centuries in English, Scots, and probably other languages. For us in our day and age, a tinker is someone who putters away at little projects, especially fix-it jobs.

Our tinker is kin to the old gadabout tinkers who wandered the English countryside earning their bread by fixing pots and pans. These tinkers were sometimes seen as footloose and shiftless gypsies who were handy to have around, now and then; or, more positively, as dependable jacks-of-all-trades who could make life easier just by being good at odd jobs.

A pair of enterprising, early 20th-century toy makers must have been thinking along these more favorable lines when they dubbed themselves the Toy Tinkers of Evanston, Ill. The toy-making story of Charles Pajeau and Robert Pettit once appeared in fairy-tale terms: “Once upon a time in a beautiful city on the shores of a bright blue lake lived two little tinker men,” Pajeau wrote in the 1920s in an introduction to a brochure showing wooden toys. “They loved good little children and wanted to make them very happy, so they toiled and toiled and built a wonderful workshop where they could make playthings for these good little boys and girls.”

Pajeau was probably the truly tinkering half of the duo behind the Toy Tinkers, having made efforts at getting into toy-making from the early 1900s. Even so, both Pajeau and Pettit had their hands in creating the memorable creativity-encouraging construction toy that made its appearance in 1914-1915, named Tinkertoy; and so both were “tinker men.” I would argue that a picture of the pair of them appears on most of the toys they made.

Pajeau and Pettit came up with a novel design for their logo which features a little figure of a person made from Tinkertoy pieces. The design is of the utmost simplicity. At the bottom, one of the round wooden spools, as seen flat from the side (feet), is linked upwards by a short stick (legs) to a spool seen topwise as a circle (body), with two short sticks upraised (arms) and another circular spool perched at the top (head).

This figure was always shown in simple, stylized form, often in a solid color with a heavy black line for an outline. It was a “Tinker Man,” as was made clear in such promotions as the brochure, “The Story of the Little Tinker Men,” in the 1920s, which depicted a bunch of these little stick-and-spool people happily at work.

In the logo for the Toy Tinkers, however, you never see just one Tinker Man standing there. You always see two. Usually they stand side by side, looking identical but equal. Is it possible to imagine this pair of little figures does not represent Pajeau and Pettit, once you know the facts?

I was led to these thoughts while thinking about the apocryphal story that Pajeau and Pettit meant to represent themselves in the extremely popular 1920s and 1930s toy bead-figure, Tom Tinker. Tom cuts a much more complicated profile than does the stylized Tinker Man, being made of several sizes of wooden balls and having a skeleton of string that allows bends, turns and fluid motions impossible to anything made out of Tinkertoy pieces.
His head is the largest wooden bead, at about 1 3/4 inches diameter. He stands about 7 inches tall, although not all by himself, of course. He has an arm-spread of about 5 1/2 inches. In the Tom that I have, Tom himself hangs from about 9 inches of string above his head, with a round bead at the very top for holding the toy. The Toy Tinkers decal appears on the torso.
In later versions, that topmost piece would be a bead cut in half, instead of a full bead; and the Toy Tinkers decal would appear on that half-bead’s upper, flat face.

Later versions are also more colorfully painted, incidentally. While this Tom’s head is painted white, with round spots for eyes, nose, and mouth, the other 17 beads making up the toy are dyed different colors.
As a consequence, this original Tom has a more subdued presence than the later, brighter Toms do, who were long-lived in Toyland. Tom arrived on the scene in 1919 and continued in production to around 1940.
Did Tom Tinker actually embody the toy-making duo of Pajeau and Pettit, though? You might find a clue in a 1920s verse by Pajeau: “Once from the land of ‘I-Don’t-Know-Where,’ there came the ‘King of the Toys’ so fair. Can you guess his name by his color bright? Tom Tinker! Yes – you guessed it right.”

At least for a while, Pajeau and Pettit served in tandem as the King of the Toys. In the 1920s and 1930s the Evanston duo ruled a playtime empire stretching east and west from Illinois to both coasts, served by loyal retail outlets and mail-order catalogs.

Just as Tom was, the toys themselves turned out to be long-lived, too.
As Pajeau noted, “It’s pretty hard for even good little children to be careful of their toys all of the time, so these little tinker men decided to make their toys so sturdy and strong that they could not be easily broken.”

Pajeau did well. This Tom Tinker, at least, outlasted him.

Mark Rich is a freelance writer and toy collector from Cashton, Wis. He is a regular contributor to F+W’s Toy Shop magazine ( Mark can be reached