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Dating Wooden Toys

We are often asked if we can date a particular toy. Well, sometimes we can and here is how we do it and how you can too:

Identify the maker - Look carefully for a manufacturer's mark. If the maker can be identified, dating the toy becomes much easier. Sometimes a maker changes the name of their toy company at a certain date, then they  changed the toy labels, all the while the toy remained the same. Frantz Manufacturing did this. Their early toys were identified with Frantz while later ones were labeled Hustler Toys. There is a transitional period when they applied Hustler decals over the Frantz marks.

Look at the style - Toys, like clothing and automobiles, reflect the style of their era. During the Art Deco period of the 1920s and 1930s, toys tended to take on an Art Deco look themselves. Dolls of this period had hair styles of the period - the flapper look. Also, manufacturers often retained only one or two toy designers, so their toys generally look similar. The manufacturers often shared components between toys to save on production costs.

Check parts material - Check the materials that the toy was made from. Plastic was introduced into toys in the late 1920s but not in any great amount. By the late 1930s, plastic was being used commonly but still not as the main material. By 1955, most toys were being made with plastic because of the low production costs. Glass eyes usually indicate an early age. Metal was in short supply during WWII so toys of that period contains little or no metal. Before WWI, a lot of toys and toy part came from Europe - mainly Germany and France. These included glass eyes and bisque heads for dolls.

Glass eyes were used on Schoenhut animals until WWI. Thereafter, the eyes were painted.

 WWI interrupted this supply and manufacturers changed to their own designs - painting the eyes on instead of using glass eyes, for example.

Check a patent number - Sometimes a toy has a patent number stamped on it. Look up the patent. We have instructions for viewing  patents on this site. Remember that the patent issue date provides a possible early date of manufacture but not necessarily the earliest. The company may have been making the toy for several years before a patent was granted. The toy could have been made for many years after the patent date.

Do a patent search - For toys made before 1976, you will have to search the Patent Repositories located throughout the country. You almost have to search page-by-page. You had better have a lot of time to devote to this! Some toys had the usual Utility Patent and some were "Design Patented". A "Utility Patent" protects a unique mechanism of the toy. A "Design Patent" protects its artistic design and an illustration will appear on the patent. The patent date will be there. This is hard and time consuming, often without good results since only a fraction of the toys made every were patented. A few toys are only known from a patent illustration.

Look at the characters - Some toys are based on popular cartoon characters. Find out when these characters first appeared. Some cartoon characters underwent changes over the years and this can help pin down a period for the toy. For example, Donald Duck made his cartoon debut in 1934 with long beak which underwent a shortening in 1937 or 1938.   

Research Toy publications - There are toy industry magazines that have been published over many years. Playthings Magazine has been publishing since about 1902 and is still publishing. Their archives are open for research at a high cost - $500 a week I understand. But they are an excellent source of toy research material.

Search manufacturer's catalogs - Collectors are very eager to obtain original or copies of original toy manufacturer's sales catalogs. These are usually dated and contain drawings or photos of the toys. 

Check the internet - Sometimes a Google search can reveal information about the toy. There are good sites for Fisher Price, push puppets, Schoenhut, and a few others. You have to know the manufacturer or the type or style of the toy (pull, push, push puppets, doll, circus) to do an effective search.

Consult with collectors - Collectors who specialize in a few makers or a toy type usually have collected a great body of information they are willing to share. We have a few collectors participating on this site who might be able to help. A list of collectors is also given in O'Brien's "Collecting Toys".

Wear - Be careful judging a toy's age from the amount of wear on it. Old toys can be unused and in near mint condition. New toys can be worn out. I haven't found that wear is an indication of age.