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How Fisher-Price began 83 years ago today

The more she read through old company papers while she helped set up the Fisher-Price history center, the more toy designer Lauren Bingel was enchanted by what she discovered about the three people who converged 83 years ago today to found the company:

Herman Fisher, an ace salesman-turned-executive, wanted to make new kinds of toys, like ducks that quacked as they rolled along at the pull of a string.

He befriended client Helen Schelle, a Binghamton toy store owner who had studied toys children played with the most and had ideas of her own.

Then there was East Aurora’s wealthy mayor, Irving Price, who was married to Margaret Evans, a gifted children’s book illustrator, and who became Fisher’s “angel” investor.

“You just start to read it, and you can’t stop, and you get lost in the stories of these people,” said Bingel.

Ever since the private Heritage Center opened three years ago on the second floor above the company toy store at the Girard Avenue headquarters, Bingel has been one of Fisher-Price’s informal historians.

She’s one of the longtime employees who are collecting stories from the company’s past. When elderly employees have invited her over to share their memories with her, she has come along with a recorder.

Last week, at a dinner that included, among other things, the induction of Fisher, Price and Schelle into the new Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame, Bingel learned a colorful tidbit about the toy company’s history: Someone told her how Fisher-Price used to rent extra space at a local funeral home to hold its holiday supply of toys.

“We do get more pieces of the puzzle,” she said.

An unsuccessful bid

Fisher, president and general manager of Rochester’s All-Fair Toys, made an unsuccessful bid to buy his employer’s firm in 1930. Word had got around that the company was selling, and Price toured the place and became interested in Fisher. Fisher’s ideas about design fit the philosophy shared by his client friend, Schelle, who would become Fisher-Price’s secretary and treasurer.

Price became chairman of the board. He and about 20 others, including his wife; Fisher’s mother; a local fruit dealer; and Elbert Hubbard II, son of the Roycroft founder, put up $100,000 in start-up cash and signed the incorporation papers Oct. 1, 1930.

A Massachusetts native, Price moved to East Aurora after he retired in his late 30s with a small fortune from his time as executive at Woolworth’s; the village was the summer retreat of the Knoxes, the Woolworths’ cousins and one of the founding families of the five-and-dime department-store chain.

In 1930, before the toy company deal was signed, Price bought President Millard Fillmore’s house as an art studio for his wife, who would become the company’s first art director and design the lithograph applied to the debut “Wheelum Pull-Toy” line, which included ducks Doctor and Granny Doodle.

After at first losing money – two-thirds of its capital – the company made a $3,000 profit on $250,000 in sales in 1936, earning silver dollar bonuses for the employees, according to “Fisher-Price” by Bruce Fox and John Murray.

Today, employees get an old silver dollar when they reach their 20-year milestone.

Bingel has one.

Her 26-year career has included designing ads, product packaging and toys with whimsical touches of personality – a tradition among designers.

The Heritage Center has a red couch featuring round “Little People” pillows designed by Bingel. The room, where a toy train runs on a track suspended from the ceiling, is used for company functions, like the press conference for last month’s announcement that the Chamber of Commerce’s new Hall of Fame would feature the three founders.

A consummate salesman

One of Bingel’s finds showed her what a consummate young salesman Fisher was. A thank-you note dated July 13, 1930, is now in a frame at the heritage center:

“I forgot to thank Mrs. Price for the lovely luncheon Wednesday. Will you please thank her for me? I am terribly absent-minded when thinking about toys. Yours, Herman.”

For Bingel, it is a glimpse into how the 31-year-old Fisher made things happen. “This man knew how to sell,” she said. “This was his joy and passion.”

Some of Price’s character emerged from company papers, too. He loved beautiful cars and was known for being a terrible driver, often bumping into employee’s cars in an age when insurance didn’t fix what broke.

“Herman Fisher forced him to hire a driver,” said Bingel. Price always drove slowly in East Aurora so that as mayor he wouldn’t get a ticket. In Orchard Park, Bingel said, he would floor it.

For Bingel, knowing more about Fisher-Price’s history has given her a greater appreciation and compassion for everyone who has worked there.

She likes the way Margaret Fisher added a baby duck in a basket under the arm of the Granny Doodle pull toy.

Small details like that are what makes Fisher-Price special, Bingel said.

She offered an example of how she once applied some personal whimsy: For a set of woodland-themed baby gear she worked on for Target, she included a hedgehog with a leaf and a squirrel holding a nut.

“You focus on the things that you love,” she said. “Your personality reveals itself through your work here.”