Two Chicago commuters create Tinkertoys

By Caryl Clem:

Conversations about the lack of job satisfaction formed an unlikely friendship between a tombstone engraver and a young grain stock broker Chicago commuters on their ride home to Evanston.  Charles Pajeau had graduated from Chicago’s Harvard Boys School taking engineering classes. He dreamed of entering the toy market. 

Charles Pajeau observed children playing daily with wooden spools that had holes placing various size sticks  and pencils to create objects while Robert Pettit had noticed wealthy children  quickly becoming bored with toys.  Pajeau invented rounded wooden circles with 45 degree angle holes on the sides and one on top. This design allowed endless possibilities to place sticks to create right triangles as a base for construction. In 1914 the two men blended their resources to open Toy Tinkers Inc.  located in Pajeaus basement at 325 Greenwood Avenue Evanston.

The toy was packaged in a tin can sitting on shelves at cigar stores and newsstands that first Christmas in 1914.  The sales the first Christmas were less than promising. Chicago area retail stores thought the tin can packaging was not worthy of elaborate window displays Pajeau tried to start. Eager to expand his market, Pajeau traveled to New York to advertise in a window display.  Key traffic areas in New York on 34th and Broadway, Grand Central Station and Macy have promoted this educational toy to inspire future builders of America. A showroom featured Tinkertoys at 200 Fifth Avenue. The production by 1915 was 900,000 sets.

Advertising exposure with product expansion, adding an electric motor, rustic Lincoln Log sets appeared Erector sets increase building designs meant total sales soared to over 6 million during the 1919 Christmas season.  By 1947, Tinker toys made Illinois the third biggest state in toy manufacturing. Pajeau served his employees coffee, lunch, and built exercise facilities. In 1964 the Charles H. and Grace F.  Pajeau Children’s Foundation was begun to raise money for underprivileged and needy children. 

The pure joy to see a creation you built is ageless.  I had a Lincoln Log set I inherited from my older brother. On days I needed to feel like I could conquer the world, I would empty the can on the floor. Time passed while I imagined building the first homestead with a relative.  Proof of a successful venture took shape in my hands. By dinnertime, I went downstairs with more confidence to face the world.  Research has shown that Tinker toys play a critical role for the brain to form spatial relationships and has been used in studies to build team management skills

Sales remain strong in company that has changed ownership 6 times; the current owner is Hasbro Corp. of Central Falls, R.I.   The 100 plus year company has an exhibit, the “Toys of Yesteryear” at the Lakeside Historical Society.    Information about what the “tinker men” created in Evanston can be found at Evanston Historical Society.  The Chicago Museum collection includes Tinker toys. Tinker toy is a member of the National Toy Hall of Fame.  A toy encouraging creative building will never be obsolete.

Where is the Wish Book?

After leafing through a small catalog mailer checking out the two page kid section, it was certainly far from grand as I remembered during my time when the Wish Book came in the mail at our house….just about this time of year, every year.

For those that remember, The Wish Book was every child’s hopes and dream to be eternally satisfied in gifts from Santa for the holiday season. The Wish Book was every parents dream to keep us busy marking the pages, even cutting out, and highlighting the most important choices that would be wrapped and placed under our Christmas tree. I made excuses to stay on the potty longer than usual, my posterior sore just to intensely study and plan with my Wish Book.

This was no flimsy flyer. Published by Sears in the forties, fifties and 1960’s holiday additions where over 400 pages in length. In 1964,1968, and 1969 proudly boasted over 600 pages and it took two hands to carry.

How beautiful the dolls…. dressed in ruffles and fairyland colors just like it says in the book in 1964. There was Betsy Wetsy, the tiny kissing cousins, the exceptional Thumbelina. Barbie, Ken, Midge, Allan and Skipper, Barbies new dream house, vinyl cases and sculptured doll carriages priced as low as $4.98.

Then there were pages of vanities with neatly filled cosmetic trays, Little Hostess Buffet, All in I kitchen in corrugated card board as well as all steel play kitchens and fully furnished Split level houses of sturdy steel for under $10.00 along with phonographs that never needed a tube replacement. There were tuck and touch needlepoint sets that were never that easy. There were paint by number which were my favorite that I still do.

Of course there were the 3 speed bikes, Gilbert train sets, Ford J slot cars, Gemini rocket to blast to the moon,walkiestalkies with code buttons to send secret messages. There were the electric build it sets and basic science club kits, chemical sets and wood burning sets in all shapes and sizes with an actual analog computer for only 5.88. Gas and battery powered miniature cars and planes and at one point motorized erector sets. Make things work boys, with your own 53 piece workshop with a workbench to match for under 20 dollars. And there were plenty of guns from the newest assault rifle to the western marshal outfit.

We both had view masters with our collection of pictures from Cinderella, Bambi, Batman and the Man from Uncle as well as an etch a sketch for under 3 dollars. I guess those were like our cell phones today.

We both played music. For the boys, it was Roy Rogers Guitar, an accordion and girls tended to receive pianos in all different sizes.

And what about the games for the entire family? There was dominos, chess, checkers of all types,along with CandyLand, Cootie House, Dr. Kildare, Lie Detector, Dick Tracy, Snakes Alive, battery operated table top Pinballs.

And believe it or not, my wish book has finally arrived once again. Not in the form of back breaking print but I can peruse through the pages of several Sears catalogs from my time at Wishbookweb.com. I can thumb through the entire catalog while sitting on the potty with my phone.

I wonder if I could place an order too!

Aww…..the good old days!