All About Old Toys
LET’S GO FLYING!
I’m sure almost all of you played with balsa wood gliders at some time in
your youth, just as I did.
Whether it was a toy that your mom or dad bought you for “being good” … a
party favor … or something you spent your allowance on in order to have
some fun with friends on sunny, summer’s day.
We just opened the packages … slid the wings and tails into the slots … and we were ready to go flying. Few of us even bothered to read the assembly instructions. We all knew what airplanes looked like. Assembly was simple and easy … almost intuitive.
Some of the gliders, we merely tossed into the air. Some we shot skyward with rubber band catapults. Others had rubber-band “motors” that we wound furiously and released to fly off under their own power. (If they were rubber-powered AND had an "undercarriage" ... wheels & struts ... they took on the moniker "ROG" because they could actually "Rise Off the Ground".)
Many youngsters loved to fly toy airplanes, but … like me … lacked the building skills necessary to assemble those marvelously complicated balsa wood stick & tissue kits. So these “ready-to-fly” (RTF) balsa wood toys provided an easy way for us to enter the realm of flight.
We soon discovered that we could alter the way the gliders flew by moving the wings forward and back … or by adding weight to the nose … or by changing the shape of the wings and tail with a piece of sandpaper … or even by winding more and more knots into the rubber-band motors.
Unknowingly, we were actually learning about the basics of flight in almost the same way Wilber & Orville Wright did ... experimentation. (As the legend goes, it was the gift of a rubber-band powered helicopter toy that first piqued the Wright’s interest in flying.)
Many, many times, our best flights ended with the airplanes landing on a neighbor’s rooftop, or in a tree or disappearing totally from sight. But a quick trip to the store could easily replenish our “air force”. They seemed to be available everywhere, with lots of company choices. There were company names like American Junior, North Pacific, Guillow, Comet, Testors, Champion and Top Flite. And many others I can’t remember.
Fond memories indeed. And for me, the start of what turned out to be a 35 year career in aviation.
Although hand-made airplane-like (or bird-like) flying toys appeared in the 1800’s, it’s unclear exactly when company-made RTF toy airplanes first became available. Some model airplane kits reportedly appeared as early as 1910. 1911 issues of “Aircraft” magazine (about “real” airplanes) had numerous ads from several manufacturers for model airplanes in kit and RTF form. Most of these were expensive to buy. In a time when $20-25 per week was a really good, working-class salary, the Ideal Model Aeroplane Co. (which became the Ideal Toy Co.) advertised airplane kits for $4-6. RTF versions sold for as much as $20. Most of the Ideal RTF airplanes were “factory built” examples of their kit aircraft.
From 1914-20, Ideal offered wood and fiber board RTF gliders for 45 cents. Though not inexpensive by any means, these can probably be considered some of the fore-runners of our “toy” airplanes.
In the 1920’s and 30’s, balsa wood became more readily available and the number of simple RTF toy gliders increased. Certainly the Charles Lindbergh phenomenon also boosted sales of toy and model airplanes of all types. However, most were still only available from hobby shops, finer toy stores or through mail order. Many of the companies that would become household names in the toy and model airplane world … American Junior Aircraft Co., the Paul K Guillow Co., the Cleveland Model & Supply Co., the Testor Corporation and Comet Model Airplane & Supply Co. … all had their beginnings in this period.
During World War 2, balsa wood was considered to be a “strategic material”, so toy airplane production was reduced dramatically. However, American Junior Aircraft founder Jim Walker cleverly developed a launching platform for his folding wing balsa gliders. This provided the Army with a quick and effective system for gunnery practice. As a result, American Junior Aircraft received significant supplies of balsa and over 120,000 Walker gliders met their doom for the war effort.
After the war, balsa once again became plentiful. As the post-war economy … and family “production” … boomed, dozens of companies now competed in the toy airplane market. The number and variety of toy airplanes was truly dazzling. New and important entrants into the RTF glider market included North Pacific Products, Pactra Chemical Co. and Top Flite.
For many of us, great airplane names like Hornet, Interceptor, Super Ace, Super Saber, Space Kadet, Ceiling Walker, Skeeter and Sleek Streek became integral parts of our everyday vocabulary.
In 1953, the Paul K.Guillow Co. introduced the Jetfire glider, which was the first of its type to be mass-produced and packaged in high-speed machinery. This allowed Guillow to meet the production quantity and unit price demands of the now-flourishing “chain stores”. The mass-marketing success of Guillow and a slowing economy spelled the end for many of the smaller companies in the 1950’s and 60’s. Some, like American Junior Aircraft, North Pacific and Comet disappeared into larger companies. Others just disappeared. By the 1970’s, only a few players were left in the game.
Currently, Guillow is the dominant manufacturer of wooden toy gliders in the US. This is understandable in my view, since they are the most akin to the gliders of the distant past. Kids can fly ‘em right out of the package … or learn the intricacies of modification and trimming for increased performance. Several other companies produce flying toy airplanes using plastic and foam, but their flight performance and durability are … to put it kindly … disappointing. Likewise, contemporary laser-cut wood gliders from Asia also seem to “miss the mark” on quality and “fly-ability” in my view.
In this era of internet auctions and antique malls, vintage gliders can often be found if one is persistent. However, many gliders are now finding their way into collections verses being used as “toys” for a weekend’s flying fun … so prices are rising accordingly.
Please read more about these flying toys in the following pages:
Author’s note – This article is provided for the entertainment of readers. To my knowledge, no definitive book(s) on the subject currently exist. However, the information was sourced as much as possible from original catalogs and ads, period newspaper articles and first-hand data from company representatives. The opinions expressed are not necessarily endorsed by the website management.
I welcome any comments, questions or corrections.
David C “Dave” Pecota