Yesterday’s Toys Remembered

As a child in the 1930s Peter Pitt is photographed in his toy car - and what a car it was - right down to the motor spirit can on the footboard!

As a child in the 1930s Peter Pitt is photographed in his toy car – and what a car it was – right down to the motor spirit can on the footboard!

Shops today stock a tremendous selection of toys and games and most children, other than the very poor, have a surfeit of them – yet it’s doubtful whether they get any more enjoyment out of them than the children of the 1930s did from their less sophisticated toys.

As a child I remember playing happily with a large, square biscuit tin which had a small, round hole at the bottom. By turning the tin on its side and stacking wooden building bricks up to represent columns, I used to imagine it was a cinema.

The Germans were always considered to be very good toy makers before the war. Two model cars I had were made by the firm of Schucco. One was a Mercedes Benz racing car which had detachable wheels, and the other a black, clockwork saloon. This had a thin strand of piano wire coming from its roof, on the end of which was a small steering wheel. This was held in the hand and enabled the car to be steered.

One game I had came from America. It was battery-operated and called ‘The Tell-Bell.’ It was, perhaps, a forerunner of a computer game today. It came in a shallow, oblong box, and when the lid was lifted there were a number of loose cards with slits in them. These coloured cards were headed by various subjects, none of which I can remember, and listed questions and answers. To play, you placed one of these cards in the box over two protruding metal slides, one of the slides was moved to a question, then you moved the other slide slowly up and down until it reached the right answer and a bell would ring. I’m sure it would be considered a collector’s item today.

At Whitestone Pond on Hampstead Heath I used to sail the model yacht which I’d bought new for half a crown, along with a small clockwork Hornby motor launch, which had cost only a little more.

Something that gave me a lot of pleasure was an old 35mm hand-cranked cine projector my father bought from a colleague. It had a low-voltage bulb which gave rather a dull picture. My father improved this by fixing a higher watt lamp encased in a cocoa tin, but when in use it became extremely hot. For a screen we used a plywood board covered with silver paint. A number of small rolls of film came with the projector. Unfortunately the spools could take only about 250ft of film, a little over two minutes’ running time, depending on the speed at which the handle was turned. One of the films was set in Africa and called In a Kafir Village. Another was of a man rowing across a stretch of water which we took to be one of the Canadian Lakes. I remember this film for a section in which the man rowing lifted one of the oars out of the water and drank from the blade. There was also a short section showing traffic in London during the General Strike of 1926.

Also among the films was a cartoon in which a van with ‘Ramsey’s Pets’ written on its side drew up outside 10 Downing Street. A number of animals came out of the van and went into the house. This must have been a political cartoon about the Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald. I was too young to appreciate its humour at the time.

All of these films were on highly-inflammable nitrate film stock, yet I would sit at a table turning the handle, with an open coal fire burning only a few feet away! The films were in our house during the blitz, and I realise now how lucky we were for the house not to have been hit by an incendi-
ary bomb.

In those days very young children had metal spinning tops which, when pressed, made a whirring sound as they spun around. When we grew a bit older we played with wooden tops which we whipped with a piece of leather attached to a stick. It was a challenge to see who could keep his top spinning the longest. Apart from the exercise we got from whipping the top, it kept you warm when the weather was cold.

My first train set was a clockwork Hornby ‘0’ gauge model which gave lots of pleasure, but what I really longed for was an electric train. One Christmas my wish was fulfilled when my parents gave me a Trix-Twin ‘00’ railway set. Other Christmas gifts would be annuals such as Rupert, Teddy Tales and Pip, Squeak and Wilfred.

I wonder if, in 50 or so years’ time, children of today will look back on space and video games with the same affection? I doubt it!

Peter Pitt