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19th-Century Connecticut Toymaking
The Connecticut Historical Society BULLETIN, Volume 36, Number 3, Hartford, July 1971
by Shirley S. DeVoe

The Iron Toys of the J. & E. Stevens Company
of Cromwell, Conn.
The State of Connecticut is well-known for the manufacture of all kinds of metal wares from the mid-eighteenth century, but the production of iron toys was not extensive until the 1860’s. Iron, of course, was the metal of the blacksmith who hand forged his wares and who, no doubt, occasionally made a toy for a favorite child. The tinsmith also produced handmade toys for the trade but, until the rise of the J. & E. Stevens Company of Cromwell, Connecticut, metal toys were not mass produced in Connecticut.

The Stevens company is considered to have been the earliest and largest manufacturer of cast iron toys in the country. In fact The Connecticut Valley Advertiser, for March 7, 1874, went so far as to say that this company was "the only one in the country which makes the production of Iron Toys a specialty and the most extensive probably in the world in variety and extent of its manufacture in this line."

When the firm started, 1843, two or three workmen were employed to make some six varieties of toys. Nearly twenty years later they were still producing fewer toys than hardware, but by 1870 production had increased to such an extent that nearly 1000 varieties of articles, a large number of them toys, were made, thus insuring constant employment for from 80 to 100 men and women. At that time the toys were cook stoves in several sizes, complete with pots, pans, kettles and coal pails; Franklin stoves and all kinds of furniture, some elaborately upholstered in red, green and maroon flock. Toy cannons, too, mounted and unmounted, were made in a dozen styles and sizes, as well as whistling tops and boy’s tool chests containing from seven to twelve tools. Still other playthings were jackstones, wagons and penny toys. The latter were three inches long and represented rakes, hoes, axes, hammers, spades and table cutlery. Dozens of these small toys could be made in a day, since three dozen or more identical figures could be made in one mold. Monkey figures, evidently not requiring perfect features, were cast from patterns cut out by small boys as an evening amusement. The boys earned nearly $200 a year for this work.

For adults, this firm offered small oval iron-framed standing mirrors, coffee-pot and flatiron stands, match safes, shelf brackets, sewing birds, iron book racks for church pews, an iron glue pot (Howe’s patent, 1867) with a tin handled brush, and many more practical items.

The Stevens company was the first to produce the now famous penny banks with patented coin traps and "moving parts for juggling a penny"; Even as late as the spring of 1906 a topical bank entitled "Teddy and the Bear," depicting Theodore Roosevelt shooting the animal, appeared under the Stevens trademark. But not all of their banks were mechanical. Of the twelve distinct varieties made there were miniature safes, a cashier bank that sold by the thousands, and another described as having a large, green frog seated on the flat roof of a building.

The foundry room was 150 feet x 50 feet in size with windows along the outside wall. It was located near the railroad embankment at Cromwell. In this room about 25 or 30 molders and founders worked by the piece earning from $1.50 to $3.00 a day, according to their capacity and experience. Their work day ended at 4:30 p.m. when all molding and pouring was finished.

The craft of iron casting consisted of three main divisions: pattern making, molding and founding. The pattern maker was a specialized carpenter and joiner whose work was extremely important and had to be closely allied to the metal craft. For example, one of his many considerations was the need to design the hollow wooden replica of the object to be cast in a slightly larger size because the molten metal shrinks as it hardens. Before the pattern could be used it was coated with varnish to provide a hard, smooth surface. This prevented the wet sand from adhering to the pattern and protected it from damage by abrasion, moisture or warping. In the 1870’s, Russell Frisbie, the designer of a toy steam engine, was the pattern maker, mechanic and a stockholder in the company.

The molder placed the pattern in the center of a "topless and bottomless box" into which damp sand was rammed around the mold. The top of the box, called the cope, and the bottom, called the drag, were then carefully and tightly fitted together by means of dowels that fitted into holes in the corners of the cope and drag. The sand used was a native product, dampened so it would hold its shape. In the early days a simple way to judge the consistency of the sand was to throw a handful against the building — if it stuck it was right!

When the sand mold was formed a gate was inserted in the top, as well as a vent, for the escape of any gas during the pouring. The gate was the funnel that carried the molten iron into the mold. The completed sand molds were then placed in rows, with aisles left between the rows for easy access by the ladlers.

From one and a half to three tons of molten iron were used each day by the founders. It was contained in the cupola (which resembled a water tank) located high above the building. When released, the red-hot metal was drained off through a pipe that ended in a spout in the wall of the room. Workers with long-handled, clay-lined, iron ladles, lined up at the spout and filled their ladles. They then carried their hot burden to the rows of sand molds and poured the melted iron into the gate. This work continued until the cupola was empty. In the gloomy foundry, the red metal gleamed through the gate and vent holes of the molds, glowing briefly like a swarm of large fireflies.

When the castings were removed from the molds they were silvery gray in color, and were then ready to be polished. This was done by placing them in a steam-turned tumbling barrel (a revolving cylinder) containing fine sand or jackstones. The action of these abrasives smoothed the surface, removing any superfluous matter from the castings. After this treatment, the articles were ready to go to the decorating and packing room located in a long building across the street from the foundry.

Nearly blocking the entrance to this room were barrels of penny toys and wheels, the latter measuring from 1 to 5 inches in diameter. For finishing the toys, paint, bronze powders or transfer engravings were quickly applied to the respective toys by 25 girls, who were seated at long benches. They were under the supervision of Simon Wershing, "a practical painter of experience."

Using the conveniently located railroad, the Stevens products were shipped to all parts of the United States. Customers could choose articles from "a tastefully illustrated and priced catalog" which was available if a two cent stamp accompanied the request.

In 1869, the J. &. E. Stevens Company was incorporated, naming John Stevens as president, E.S. Coe as treasurer and William Hulbert as secretary and superintendent. The capital stock was $140,000, with $10,000 worth of patterns and a full assortment of manufactured goods valued at $50,000. The reorganization of the company at this time, and the omission of his name as an officer, points to Elisha Stevens’ new venture which was the manufacture of tin toys.

The Tin Toys of the Stevens & Brown
Manufacturing Company of Cromwell, Conn.
In the fall of 1869, Elisha Stevens, brother of John, erected a factory close to the Connecticut Valley Railroad station at Cromwell — so close in fact, that the platform of the depot continued into the packing room and storehouse of the factory. In this new building "composed mainly of windows" nearly 300 varieties of tin and Brittania toys were produced. These toys were superior to those of cast iron, for they were more realistic in form and lighter in weight. They could also be quickly produced by punches and drop hammers.

To form the body of a vehicle or animal, the heavy iron molds of the drop hammers were raised by steam power, then quickly dropped onto a sheet of tinplate. The omnibus panels and car bodies were stamped out in one piece, while animals were made in two halves. To make a whole animal the sides were first cleaned with a sponge saturated with muriatic acid and then soldered together by an operator who sat at a stove on which was a kettle of melted solder. The next step was to cool the completed animal form by dipping it in water. This whole process was accomplished very quickly.

Elisha Stevens’ partner was George W. Brown (1830-1889), who was responsible for the introduction of mechanical toys. Brown was in the toy business in Forestville (Bristol) with a man named Goodrich. They produced, under contract, the clock movements of different sizes, made in proportion to the size of the toy in which the movements were to be used. Brown, as agent for the Cromwell firm, adopted the English practice of using a pattern or sample book. This book, now privately owned, is 21 x 15 inches in size and has on the cover the name "George W. Brown & Co." embossed in gold. In this book are carefully hand-drawn and painted illustrations of the toys made by Stevens & Brown. They are identical in size with the black and white illustrations of the company’s catalog of 1870.

The mechanical toys included all kinds of horse-drawn vehicles, a velocipede, an automatic waltzer, a machine shop and several boats. One small steamboat, with the name VICTORY stencilled on the cover of the paddle wheel, was the prototype of a real steamboat built on the Hudson in 1827. The Victory became famous for having invaded Connecticut waters and precipitating a price war on passenger fares, and a stencilled version of this vessel was also portrayed in the New England wall murals painted by Rufus Porter, the Yankee genius.

About 40 varieties of chandeliers, pendants and brackets for kerosene lamps were made at a subsidiary plant located at Rocky Hill, but all these articles were finished at the Cromwell factory. Other products offered were sewing machines, whistles, ABC plates, flutes, fish horns, miniature kitchen utensils, penny toys and penny banks. The banks were made in the form of cottages and Gothic houses and were adaptations of the pottery "bank boxes" made in England in the first half of the nineteenth century. These japanned and stencilled banks still retained the large slot needed for early copper pennies, even though in this country large pennys were no longer produced after 1857.

The small domestic utensils were coffee pots, dust pans, pails, cups, trays and candlesticks. They were coated with transparent Prussian blue japan and stencilled with gold powder. On the cups and pails were such sentiments as A GOOD BOY, A PRESENT, or SOUVENIR.

In 1862 Brown produced an oil burner for kerosene lamps. This was a successful venture, but in 1868 he sold out to the Bristol Brass and Clock Company. According to the Bristol and Plainville Directory, 1882, this company was organized in 1850 and was the largest manufacturing company in Bristol. When it bought Brown’s oil burners, its capital stock was $230,000. After selling out, Brown remained as sales agent for the company until his death in 1889.

Brown still retained some interest in toys, for in 1871 he began the production of toy steam engines that were "none of your tame affairs run by clock springs but a genuine article manufacturing its own steam. Young America is a progressive institution and it takes something in the scientific line to amuse him."

At the Cromwell factory 20 girls were employed in the painting and packing departments. They painted the vehicles and animals in realistic colors but stencilled the names of locomotives, boats and other vehicles. Stencils were also used to add certain decorative details. All the finished articles were dried in two large steam-heated chambers which were as large as a small room.

It is interesting to note that many of the non-mechanical toys illustrated in the catalog of the earlier firm of Hull and Stafford, Clinton, Connecticut, (1850-1870) were similar to some made at Cromwell (Antiques, Dec. 1939). The date of the end of this firm, the similarity of its products, and the start of the Stevens and Brown factory in 1869, hints at the possibility that Elisha Stevens absorbed the Clinton firm.

The Stevens & Brown Manufacturing Company with Elisha Stevens as its president, had a capital stock of $75,000. E.C. Phelps served as the secretary and H.F. Allison the treasurer. George W. Brown, no doubt using his handsome pattern book, acted as the company’s agent. Their products were sold to many firms in this country, including The American Toy Company of New York City, and large orders for the mechanical toys came from England. The firm came to an end in 1880.

While many of the toys of a hundred years ago have disappeared due to the hard use given them by children, a fair number have survived and are now cherished at museums and by private collectors.

 

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