Toy cars and trucks give a nostalgic view of `progress'

A FEW years back while digging in my yard, I uncovered a rusted cast-iron Model T toy truck. A collector has since told me it was probably manufactured in the 1920s. I carefully chipped away the years of congealed rust and dirt and placed it among my own collection of toys. It provides both a nostalgic memory and a current conversation piece.

American Toy Cars & Trucks, by Lillian Gottschalk (Abbeville Press, $75), suggests that I'm not alone. Looking at the striking illustrations by photographer Bill Holland, one can appreciate the appeal, to children and adults alike, of miniature models of real-life mechanical counterparts.

In fact, toys are, in many respects, the great equalizer. Today, more than ever, one finds an interest in models of trucks and freight vehicles. These toys reflect, in miniature, a slice of life that may be gone forever. They evoke both history and nostalgia, and they enable the collector to create his own little empire, transportation company, or neighborhood that embodies all the advantages of these emblems of progress and none of their hindrances. With it, he can dwell in the past for a time and reminisce on the days when not only real trucks, but also the toy replicas, were built to last.

During the period covered in the book (1894 to 1942), the horse gave way to the internal-combustion engine, oil replaced hay as fuel, and the toys reflected these changes. The playthings represent a way of life, not only in terms of the cars and trucks they reproduce, but in the way they were manufactured.

The book covers the various materials used in manufacturing the miniatures. Toy cars and trucks were shaped from the traditional materials - wood, iron, and steel - but there are also examples made from glass and paper, often used as promotional items for companies.

This was before the advent of plastic, of course, and wood often could not withstand the use (or abuse) of children, who frequently used their tiny vehicles on rough outdoors terrain. Iron, and later pressed steel, seemed to be the favorite medium.

The Buddy L company, for example, produced their cars from 20-gauge sheet steel, the same used in real automobile manufacturing. This gave the toys a lasting quality, and an excellent finish with the baked on undercoat and enamel - just like real cars! These toys were advertised as being for ``3- to 10 year-olds,'' but it was no secret that dads around the globe found them just as exciting as their offspring did.

My favorite section of the book deals with the toys that were used to advertise, often as one of the give-away promotional items that have always been part of Madison Avenue.

The trucks and vans are somehow more appealing adorned with a slice of life that one can readily relate to people of the era - for example, a limo carrying the name of O'Connors department store of Mahanoy City, Penn.: ``The Store That Sells Everything.'' That vehicle has a life of its own, as does a truck that delivered ``Smile,'' a citrus-flavored drink of the '20s and '30s. Car dealers gave away miniature cast-iron Chevrolets, and Star Shoes gave a tin ``racer'' to anyone who bought their footwear.

As far as the public is concerned, the freight carriers portrayed here may be the poor relations of transportation in the public's view. Many remember with pride such trains as ``The Twentieth Century Limited,'' or Greyhound's sleek highway buses criss-crossing the American continent.

Less familiar are the timetables of those long freights that blew their melancholy whistles in the night, or the trucks that were, in many cases, more the lifeblood of the nation than their more famous passenger-carrying counterparts.

I read this book as I would a history book, as a remembrance of a way of life I once knew, but which has largely been relegated to the museums.

Beyond the playthings themselves, the book brings to mind facets of our fast-paced life that were once simpler, more comfortable perhaps, than we find them today. More than an investment in collectibles, the toys represented in this book call to mind one's childhood investment of time and interest in life - one that pays dividends almost immediately, and continues to pay larger ones as the years pass.

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