Journal: The Toy Tinkers of Evanston

Classic American wooden toy manufacturers from the early 20th century can essentially be counted on two hands. Okay, three or four.

But just one of them introduced a new product in New York City at The American Toy Fair in 1914 which flopped- and within a year, sold over one million units of the new Tinkertoys.

Image courtesy Richard Mueller, Jr.

The Toy Tinkers Company- a partnership between the designer Charles Pajeau and the trader/marketer Robert Pettit- began in 1913 when Pajeau, a stonemason by trade, “tinkered” in his basement producing a new building set supposedly based on his observations of children at play with thread spools and pencils or rods.

The pair’s business took off when the Tinkertoy constructions were featured in a prominent Chicago storefront window some 99 years ago accompanied by costumed dancing “elves” hard at work on their complex creations, including windmills spun by a fan.

Am I biased towards worshipping The Tinkers because we kids grew up in Deerfield- a brazen 60’s landfill Chicago suburb just a short drive up the Edens Expressway from Almighty Evanston on the lakefront?

Could be.

We didn’t know anything about Tinkers "the business." We knew Tinkertoys because our parents gave us the bright red, white and blue metal-capped cardboard canisters packed full of those wondrous parts.

And we built and beat them to death, lost the rods and spools behind couches and down floor heaters, tore the towers down and built them up again until the blue cardstock fan blades were folded and tattered and the rubber bands long gone. And then it was time to plead for another Tinkertoys set.

That's me on the left with brothers Steve and John, Christmas in Chicago ca. 1957. Look closely behind Steve's hockey gear and you'll see the iconic red, white and blue Tinkertoys canister (circled).

And how we pored over those fabulous illos in the instructions booklet! We had no clue what a “Walking Beam” or a “Vertical Engine” were, but they were there to be built.

Tinkertoys continue to fascinate. Here's my skilled neighbor Ren at work on an air compressor design in the shop using my vintage 1940's Senior Tinkertoy set with Windlass Drive:

And his fabulous result:

The Toy Tinker's production was never limited to Tinkertoy building sets. From the collection, ca. 1920's-'40's, Bunny Tinker, Whirly Tinker, Tom Tinker and Pony Tinker.

A 1931 catalog page featuring Bunny Tinker and Tom Tinker, and friends. Courtesy Jim Sneed

Another from the collection- a very early example of the fantastical, huge (nearly 5' long) Tinkerpins game. Too big to shoot with camera against my seamless paper!

There were many extraordinary building sets similar to Tinkertoys, although none caught the public’s imagination quite like the original. From the collection:

In the 50’s and 60’s The Toy Tinkers had already moved on from some of the most interesting products they’d created as tastes changed and economic considerations drove production away from wood and towards plastics and composites.

The ownership of the company passed through several buyouts, severely reducing the original Evanston plant's workforce and eventually outsourcing production for the most part.

Wooden Tinkertoys sets remain, but to my mind are a mere shadow of their former glory.

All Hail Tinkertoys!!


All content copyright 2013 Kevin McGuire excepting as noted.

The Evanston History Center for the Pettit Family Film Collection video link and for their kind correspondence:
1920’s-30’s film of Tinkertoys by Robert Pettit

A brief history of Tinkertoys

Two essential websites for classic toys:

Richard Mueller, Jr.

Jim Sneed

Kevin Preston’s journey to replace his 1963 Tinkertoys set