Iron Toys Of The Past That Were Cast To Last

Posted: June 14, 1987

The bandwagons, animal cages, deer sleighs, motorcycles, steamrollers, street sweepers, horse-drawn fire pumpers and carriages on parade at the Heritage Center in Lancaster are among the best cast-iron toys ever made. All were produced by the Hubley Manufacturing Co. in Lancaster between 1894 and 1942.

"Pull, Look and Listen: It's a Hubley Toy," the title of the first museum exhibition of Hubley products, was taken from a 1929 Hubley advertisement. Organized by Lillian Gottschalk, a Parkton, Md., toy collector and author, the exhibit includes more than 150 toys and banks borrowed from private collectors and local families. It will run through Nov. 21.

"The show appeals to the sophisticated toy collector, but it also appeals to a host of others," said Patricia Keller-Conner, director of the Heritage Center. "These toys are a part of remembered childhood of so many residents of Lancaster. In the few weeks since the show has opened I've overheard Lancaster residents say, 'Father made that,' or 'Mother painted it,' or 'I packed it.' They are amazed that something they had a hand in is part of history."

The Hubley toy company was founded by John E. Hubley, a bank teller who began making toys for his own children in the basement of his house on East King Street. Later, he and a partner built a foundry in the north end of Lancaster where they made toy cast-iron carriages, some with clockwork mechanisms.

Hubley was active in the company for only six years. The business prospered under the direction of John W. Hartman and Joseph T. Breneman, who in 1906 began producing figures for Royal Circuses and other horse-drawn toys. They

went on to make cap pistols, airplanes, a few mechanical banks and other toys, some using the brand names of American companies. There are Hubley Ford cars and trucks, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Maytag washers and a Hubley Old Dutch Cleanser toy that has the Little Dutch Girl shaking her mop as the toy is pulled.

In 1928 Hubley made the Lindy, a version of Charles Lindbergh's plane. The America, inspired by the tri-motor plane in which Adm. Richard Byrd flew to the South Pole, is the largest plane Hubley made; it has a 14-inch wingspan. For a special party given by Pittsburgh industrialist Arthur E. Braun in June 1929, Hubley made 22 yellow aquaplanes modeled on Amelia Earhart's Friendship, each with a foot-wide wingspan and the aviator's autograph on the wing. One of these rarities has been loaned to the exhibition by the Westmoreland Museum of Art in Greensburg, Pa.

In 1912 Hubley began making motorized fire engines, which took the place of the earlier horse-drawn models. Hubley pioneered comic-character toys with cast-iron Brownies, based on the characters of cartoonist Palmer Cox, and continued in this vein in 1938 with the Popeye Patrol (Popeye on a motorcycle). The toy was not a success; thus it is relatively rare and desirable today.

The Depression was a difficult period for Hubley. Many complicated cast- iron toys were discontinued, and the company survived by making dime-store cars and trucks. Toys like Jantzen water skiers and cast-iron boats with Johnson outboard motors sold poorly in hard times, making them rare and expensive today.

During World War II the Hubley factory produced parts for incendiary bombs, but in the fall of 1945 returned to full-scale toy production, changing from cast iron to zinc alloy dies. To hold down costs, a new material called Huboid was patented. Lighter than iron, strong and durable, it was a composition of sawdust, wax, lampblack and even rye flour, injected into a mold. That method was much like the one used today to make plastic toys in the Hubley Pitney Road Plant in Lancaster, which is part of Hasbro Inc.

Although the cowboy guns and holsters, automobile model kits and composition toys on display are interesting historically, they pale next to the toys from the golden age of Hubley, 1894 to 1929.

Among the most spectacular toys are the clockwork elevated railway and a clockwork Columbian Ferris Wheel. "Hubley produced the Ferris Wheel soon after it was introduced at the Columbian Exposition in 1893," Lillian Gottschalk said.

The ultimate challenge for toy collectors is to assemble a complete Hubley Royal Circus, including bandwagons, open cages, closed vans and chariots. For more than a quarter-century Hubley produced these circus toys in three sizes. Perelman Toy Museum in Philadelphia is the only place a complete large-size Hubley Royal Circus is on display.

The Perelman display includes a Revolving Monkey Cage, the rarest and most expensive Hubley toy. This 1930 toy features a driver perched on the ledge of a gilded circus wagon, holding the reins of two black horses. The movement of the revolving cage is controlled by rotating wheels.

"It's a $20,000 toy," said Baltimore toy collector and dealer Frank Whitson. "There are so few, I don't believe it was ever put into production." One sold for $19,000 at Sotheby's in 1985, but the buyer, Washington lawyer Max Berry, did not lend it to the Heritage Center; neither did the Perelman Museum lend its model.

Among the best cast-iron toys are Hubley's carriages. "I look at these toys as the foundryman's art," said Lloyd Ralston, Fairfield, Conn., toy auctioneer and cast-iron-toy collector. "I consider them art objects. I see a depth of color and a fineness of casting; the delicacy is amazing."

The Heritage Center, on Penn Square in downtown Lancaster next to the Farmers Market, is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.. Admission is free.

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