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Spotlight: Toys of the times

Whether it’s the video game Fortnite, or the dollhouses and G.I. Joes of the past, toys tend to reflect the time period in which they were created.

Historian Bruce Markovich of the Lansford Historical Society is drawn to toys because they often reflect life as it was at the time.

“Here’s the thing I have always felt with a toy. It is a direct reflection of the time in which the toy is made,” he said.

Starting this week at the Lansford Historical Society Museum at 117 E. Bertsch St, visitors can see a display of toys, many of which came out of the coal regions.

The display includes an elaborate dollhouse from the late 1940s, sold at Bright’s Department Store. At the time, soldiers were returning home from the war with optimism about starting families, and the dollhouse reflects that.

“They got the GI bill, the economy is flourishing, there’s jobs all over the place, this is what they expected,” Markovich said.

But in the late 1800s as the coal industry flourished, the situation was much different. Families in the coal region could barely afford to scrape by, so toys for children were definitely a luxury.

Some mine bosses’ families were able to afford them. The museum’s collection includes an 1878 picture book published in Scotland depicting tales for kids.

“That would be a month’s salary for most miners in 1878,” Markovich said.

It also includes an 1890s Slovak doll — with the head made all of papier-mâché and fibers — no plastic or ceramic.

“If somebody got something like that, you were doing really well,” he said.

Working-class families might give their children one toy — a homemade yo-yo for a boy or a piece of clothing for a girl.

At those times, families couldn’t even afford a Christmas tree. So they would fill stockings with nuts and dried fruits — maybe an orange — and hide them around the house to entertain the kids.

Family life started to improve around the turn of the century, particularly following the great mine strike of 1902. The collection includes lots from the 1910s and ’20s — metal, mechanical toys which reflected a lot of what was going on in the industries of the day. Marx Brothers toys were popular, as well as Sandy Andy toys. Historical society member Bill Harleman has amassed a collection of toys from that time period which are on display at the museum.

“All the toys are based upon work at this period. It reflects everything that was going on at the time,” Markovich said.

Families were aided by new charge accounts at Bright’s Department Store. The program was popular to a fault. But it meant that kids could get toys.

Bright’s would remain a crucial element of Christmas in the coal region throughout the 1900s as kids’ tastes went from train sets to toy cars.

The collection also highlights that era. A Lionel train set surrounds a 1939 replica of the power generating station for the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company. Markovich said at the time, the president of the company commissioned each unit of the company to produce a model building to be part of a massive train set which was placed in LC&N headquarters. Some pieces survive today.

“Originally it was in the main office, then his house in Edgemont. Then it was in the front window of Bright’s, then it disappeared. This is probably the only original surviving piece,” Markovich said.

Lansford Historical Society Museum’s Toy Display will be up throughout the holidays. The museum is open from 6-8 p.m. Thursdays. An open house will take place noon-4 p.m. on Sunday.

This Li’l Abner tin toy would have been made in the 1940s.
Bruce Markovich of the Lansford Historical Society Museum compiled toys from throughout the history of the coal region for the museum’s latest display. PHOTOS BY CHRIS REBER/TIMES NEWS
A late 40s doll house showed the ideal life that families hoped for in the postwar period.
An interesting teddy bear in the collection.
The Busy Miners toy is one of many in the display created by the Marx Brothers Company.
This windup Santa from the 1920s flips pages in his book.
Some of the mid-20th century toys on display.
The windup key on the side of this toy turns the wheels.