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ANTIQUES - August, 1945

JEROME B. SECOR AND HIS MECHANICAL TOYS
By LOUIS H. HERTZ

JROME BURGESS SECOR. American mechanic and inventor, left his imprint on a half-dozen or more important American industries, including the making of sewing machines, typewriters, and machine tools, but it is for his ingenious mechanical toys that he is best remembered today. This is due primarily to the fame of his Freedman's Bank, but this mechanical bank was merely one of a series of equally fascinating toys which he manufactured in the late 1870's and early 1880's. These toys are outstanding because Secorbrought to this relatively minor undertaking all the inventive and manufacturing ability which distinguished his productions in other fields.

Jerome B. Secor was born at Liberty Village, N.Y., on October 8, 1839. The family was of French Huguenot extraction, the name being variously spelled Secor, Secord, Sicard, and Sycard. Jerome’s father, Oliver, was a gun maker, and maintained a gun shop on Avenue A in New York. From there the family subsequently moved, in turn, to Honesdale, Pa., where Jerome attended Honesdale Academy, to St. Louis, Mo., to Weston, Mo., and finally to Peoria, Ill., where Oliver opened a new gun shop. Among his customers, according to family tradition, were Kit Carson and Jefferson Davis.

Even as a boy, Jerome became interested in producing toys, deriving his amusement from designing and constructing them, rather than from playing with them. In Peoria, he constructed and sold toy locomotives and boats, including one boat large enough to carry two boys. This latter craft he exchanged for a diamond ring which he presented to his stepmother.

His mechanical ingenuity was already marked when, at the age of twenty, he took a job in the model room of a sewing machine factory in Chicago. There he perfected a device to “take up” the tension in the machine, which he sold to the company for a round thousand dollars. Most youths would have been content to continue in so lucrative a position, and Jerome was assured of rising to the very top, but his mind had already conceived other ideas. He had long before determined to enter into the manufacture of a sewing machine of his own at the first opportunity. Taking his thousand dollars, he resigned his position, and, designing a machine to his own ideals, he opened a small factory and commenced production.

It had been his intention to move his business eventually to Bridgeport, Conn., which was then the center of the sewing machine industry, and to interest eastern capital in the expansion of the firm. This move was suddenly hastened by the advent of the great Chicago fire on October 8, 1871-his thirty-second birthday! Without delay he moved his entire family, wife, four children, father, and stepmother, to Bridgeport and prepared to begin operations there.

He located the plant of the Secor Sewing Machine Co. in a capacious building in East Bridgeport, and, upon beginning production, met with considerable success. His machines were widely sold, and, through gaining awards at various American expositions, and at the Universal Exhibition at Vienna in 1873, became somewhat in demand. He attained a production of several thousand machines a year, a small number in comparison to the tens of thousands being turned out by his Bridgeport competitors, but enough to have assured him a comfortable livelihood.

In the meantime, he had purchased half of a double house on West Avenue in Bridgeport, and found, as fate would have it, that the owner and occupant of the other half of the house was none other than Edward Ives, then already well on his way to fame as America’s foremost toy maker. Ives was manufacturing a great variety of mechanical toys in his Bridgeport plant: clockwork figures and dancers, locomotives, miniature velocipede riders, etc. It is almost certain that from his contacts with his new friend Secor became interested in the commercial possibilities of toy-making

As a side-line to his sewing machines, hr perfected and started to manufacture mechanical singing birds in cages. A music box in the base, for which Secor not only made the designs and tools, but also composed the tune, furnished the songs, and the birds themselves were covered with real feathers and wired to perform lifelike movements while the tune played. These birds met with some little success, and Secor displayed them, along with his sewing machines, at the Vienna Exhibition.

Following the panic of 1876, Secor suffered a complete overturn of his fortunes, and the sewing machine factory was closed, he cast about for some new means of livelihood. 

He first started making toys in the attic of his house, producing a number of different types including cap pistols, the paint of which he baked hard in his kitchen stove. Much more ingenious was the series of fine clockwork toys which he soon began to produce, the woman of his family participating by sewing the clothes in which the little figures were dressed.

These mechanical toys were manufactured by Secor from about 1878 to 1882; certainly none of them was produced earlier than 1877, and probably none in that year. The toys were all somewhat larger and more elaborate than the similar Ives mechanical toys, and so retailed for rather higher prices. The Freedman’s Bank at one time sold for $66.00 a dozen wholesale, and probably for about $7.50 retail, quite a price for a toy in those days. In 1880, the Bullard Machine Tool Company moved into the lower floors of the building where Secor and Ives had their factories, and for a time at least, in 1883, Secor served as superintendent of their plant.

There were at least six separate toys in Secor’s clockwork series: the Freedman’s Bank, a white girl in lace-trimmed dress playing a piano, and four types of Negro figures, playing a banjo, shaking a tambourine, shaking castanets, or waving a round fan. The last four figures and that of the Freedman’s Bank all had heads cast of a white metal alloy, from the same mold. 

The mechanical piano player was another toy of especial merit and possessed great charm. The figure was beautifully dressed, complete even to a blue ribbon in her hair. A bit of this ribbon is still preserved by a member of the Secor family. The Negro figures had wide flaring collars, made of tin painted white, and were generally dressed in bright checked coats, with brass buttons and large bow ties.

These were not, however, by any means the only types of toys made by Secor. He obtained a patent in 1880 for a cast iron clockwork locomotive, and manufactured toys in accord with the patent specification.

Often the simplest and cheapest article is the most profitable, however, and this was true of Secor’s toys. In 1880 he patented a small singing bird or “mechanical warbler” which was entirely different from his earlier clockwork singing birds in cages. The new bird, which was merchandised variously as “Secor’s Improved American Songster”, “The American Gold Finch”, and under other names given it by jobbers, was mounted on top of a tube leading to a small metal bowl, from which led another tube and a mouthpiece. The bowl was partially filled with water, and when one blew into the mouthpiece, a diaphragm was actuated, producing a birdlike sound and at the same time moving a rod which operated the bird’s beak and tail. This production met with immediate and widespread success, and was sold in vast quantities for many years. Secor's son, Hamilton, took up its sale when his father turned once more to sewing machines and typewriters, for with the profits from the "mechanical warblers" and his other toys, Secor was able to resume the manufacture of sewing machines in the early eighties. Sometime before his second marriage in 1887, he sold most of his toy business to Ives.

In 1899, Secor left Bridgeport for Derby, Conn., to take charge of the Williams Typewriter Company which he subsequently bought out. He had made the tools for this machine, and also for the product of the American Typewriter Company. Eventually, Secor perfected so many improvements as to create an entirely new machine, which was marketed as the Secor typewriter. In time he sold out his typewriter designs and went into the manufacture of small tools and special machinery once more. During the first World War he was very active in producing tools for rifle production, and experimented with a rapid-fire gun which he tested. He also took up the manufacture of some small toys, inexpensive quantity sellers, and once again Secor toys albeit of an entirely different type, were advertised to a new generation of toymen. After 1919, Secor virtually retired. He died September 18, 1923.


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