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.

Decades of kitchen fun

During kindergarten recess, I would anxiously visit their kitchen, have a seat while waiting for the best in plastic cuisine presented to me. There were several cooks involved in the process; a far more elaborate setting than my early 1960’s, childhood kitchen. They would fight when offering me the best to eat from their own personal menus. It was a constant argument between pizza, chocolate chip cookies, donuts with sprinkles or just candy. Sometimes I would get juice…half filled. Now, without being in school with friends, they are probably learning the real art of cooking in the family kitchen with Mom. I loved my childhood kitchen and after watching a home movie, I realized that I, too, wanted to be in charge, just like my kindergarten friends.

Made in the early 1960’s, mine was not metal like some, but the made from Sears brand that many had in white or pink corrugated cardboard with red, plastic handles that was easy to move. The set included a stove, with glow burners, oven, cupboard, sink with running water and refrigerator. I don’t remember the cups, saucers and other utensils except for a metal coffee pot and a aluminum baking pan for cupcakes. Vintage play food was not as extravagant as it is now. Pizza and chocolate chip cookies were not a big item on the list. My collection included lots of fruits and I did have a turkey for Thanksgiving.

Unfortunately, in the early 1990’s, my daughter did not have a kitchen but her best friend who lived right next door did. They had a special bowl and ingredients to make alphabet soup. She also had a Fischer Price Sizzle and Glow that the girls would try to relocate outside during nice weather but this was electronic. She had a muffin container too. However, they came with the finished product;  great looking frosted cupcakes with maraschino cherries.

Today, play kitchens are not that different with the exception of having a microwave oven, refrigerator ice dispenser and no corrugated cardboard designs. Many are being crafted from high quality wood. Mine went for about 15 dollars. Today, 200 is the average price to fulfill your child or grandchild’s dream of having the best kitchen in the community. During another article soon, we will talk about the best of childhood grocery stores…found right in your home! Pickup and delivery was available even back in the day.