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Looking back at the golden age of tin toys

Because the 19th century Industrial Revolution resulted in new technology and the creation of a middle class, the invention of tin toys was possible and profitable.

Earlier toys had been made of wood, fabric or ceramics. Tin toys were made in the early years of the 19th century in Germany, England and France. The J. Hess Co. was founded in Germany in 1826. Other German toy companies, including Marklin, Bing and Lehmann, soon started up, too.

Tin toys were first made in the United States in the early 1830s. By the 1860s, many U.S. companies were producing the toys. In fact, the years from 1865 to 1895 are called the "Golden Age of American Tin Toys." By the 1890s, German and French toymakers were realizing that tin toys were popular in the United States. They made large numbers of toys and pictured them in sales catalogs that now help collectors identify the makers. American toys were less complicated and more amusing than European examples.

Toys then, as now, chronicled the everyday life of children. One popular Hess toy was a windup toy shaped like a boy on a sled. Turn the key and the sled scoots across the floor. The boy might have a red, green or yellow jacket. Other companies made a very similar toy. All date from about 1915.

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Q: I have a Frister & Rossmann treadle sewing machine mounted on a maple stand. It has a crank that can be operated by foot or hand. The scrollwork on the machine is beautiful. Can you tell me more about the machine?

A: Robert Frister and Gustav Rossmann started making sewing machines in Berlin in the mid-1860s. Their first machines were licensed copies of American machines made by Wheeler & Wilson and Willcox & Gibbs. Frister & Rossmann was the largest producer of sewing machines in Germany for decades, and new sewing machines with the Frister & Rossmann brand name are still being sold.

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Q: I have a dessert serving set that was given to me by a great-aunt in the 1950s. There is a circular mark on the bottom of the dishes enclosing the word "Shofu" in large capital letters surrounded by the words "Made in Japan." Can you tell me who made this set and how old it is?

A: Shofu Kajo or Shofu Katei (1870 to 1928) made porcelain in Kyoto, Japan, beginning in 1890. He founded the Shofu Ceramics Co. in 1908 and began importing ceramics. There still is a company called Shofu in Kyoto. It was incorporated in 1922 by Kajo Shofu III and is still in business making porcelain dentures. The words "Made in Japan" are a clue to the years when the mark on your dessert set was used. On its ceramics exports, Japan used the word "Nippon" (a transliteration of "Japan") as its country name until 1921. After 1921 the U.S. government forced Japanese exporters to use the word "Japan" in their marks. Pieces made in Japan from 1947 to 1952 are marked "Made in Occupied Japan." Your dessert set was made between 1921 and 1941 or in the early 1950s.

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Q: Are armadillo baskets really made out of armadillo "skin"?

A: Armadillo baskets are made from the hard "shell" of the nine-banded armadillo. Usually the finished baskets are varnished; some have cloth linings.

Charles Apelt (1862-1944), a German immigrant basket-maker who lived on a farm in Texas, noticed that the shell of an armadillo he had killed and skinned curled up into a basket shape as it dried. He started the Apelt Armadillo Co. in Comfort, Texas, in 1898 and began to make baskets from the shells. Handles were formed by looping the long tail over and wiring it to the basket. Armadillo baskets became popular after they were shown at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. The company made baskets, purses, lamps and other items from armadillo shells until it closed in 1971. A basket in good shape sells for about $50 to $100, depending on its size and lining.

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