Springfield Museums Showcase of Antique Toys, Just in Time for the Holidays

Peek Inside Santa’s Sack at the Springfield Museums
Tuesday, November 12, 2013 through Sunday, January 5, 2014

For a fun challenge at the exhibition, discuss with your children the production methods used for cast-iron toys, and see if you can spot the hammered steel pins connecting the left and right halves of the toys! This can serve as both a history lesson and a lesson in engineering and fabrication.

The Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts at the Springfield Museums ushers in the holiday season with a showcase of vintage cast iron toys.  The exhibition, titled “A Peek Inside Santa’s Sack,” features rare cast iron collectibles such as fire trucks, horse-drawn carriages and emergency vehicles, airplanes, toy trains and miniature wood and coal stoves – predecessors to the classic HESS trucks of the past fifty years – and tells the story of the three most popular toy-makers of the period.

 Cast-iron toys were common between the 1870s and the 1940s because the molds in which they were made could be reused thousands of times, making the mass production of these metal toys an efficient and profitable endeavor…

“Toysearcher,” the blogger behind OldAntiqueToys.blogspot.com, describes the process of manufacturing cast-iron toys as follows:

“The cast iron process involves melting iron [and other metals].  It’s then poured into a mold (cast), allowed to cool, and then the cool part is separated from the mold.  The earlier models were made in two parts – a left and right.  The parts are then aligned together, and a heavy-duty steel pin is pushed through the two parts via holes.  Each end is then carefully hammered tightly to have the two parts joint together.  One way of knowing that a cast iron toy is “fake” or a reproduction is [when] the two halves are [connected by] a screw, rather than a pin hammered on both sides.”

For a fun challenge at the exhibition, tell your family about the production methods used for cast-iron toys, and see if you can spot the hammered steel pins connecting the left and right halves of the toys!  This can serve as both a history lesson and a lesson in engineering and fabrication.

Students will enjoy this exhibit for the recognizable (and not-so-recognizable) features of the cast-iron toys compared with the toys they grew up playing with, while adults will enjoy the display for nostalgia’s sake.  As a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote of a 1987 Hubley toy exhibition in Lancaster, PA, “these toys are part of a remembered childhood.”  They spark memories of bygone years – of the simpler, purer experiences of childhood, of the boom in American industrialism, and of the security of having a little red truck close on your heels, pulled by the string in your small hand.

In addition to the cast-iron toys exhibition, the D’Amour Museum will also have a selection of contemporary photographs that celebrate Christmas, Hanhukkah, Kwanzaa and New Years’ on display.  The show is titled “Season’s Greetings: Photographer’s Holiday Cards,” and is unique in that the works on display were all taken before the rise of digital and cell-phone cameras – meaning that the photos are all true to life, unaltered by digital programs and tools.  The artists behind the works range from amateurs to professionals in the field, and the subject matter is equally varied: some humorous and contemporary, some depicting traditional religious and/or sacred concepts.  Linking these photos to traditional holiday greeting cards in the exhibition title is a sly nod to the changing methods of popular social communication during the holiday season.  In such a short span of time, analog photographs went from being the most common greeting-card inclusion to being obsolete, while Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook are now used to instantly convey season’s greetings.  What will be next?  With your family, take turns guessing the next technology with which we will communicate holiday cheer.

The D’Amour Museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10am-5pm and Sundays from 11am-5pm.  413-263-6800.  21 Edwards Street.  Springfield, MA.  General admission is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and college students, $8 for children 3-17, and free for children under 3 years and museum members.  Springfield residents receive free general admission with proof of address.  For more information: springfieldmuseums.org.

For further information relating to cast-iron toys, check out these links and books:

And here’s a “vintage” Hilltown Family Variety Show podcast that was inspired by another western Massachusetts museum exhibition centered around the history of toys:

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