Thomas Toys - Miniatures With Real Play Value
by Marcie & Bob Tubbs
For the dollhouse collector who likes to do more than just decorate and rearrange furniture, the Thomas Manufacturing Corporation’s line of toys is a great addition to a collection. Despite their wonderful play value and low 10¢ - 59¢ postwar prices, there are many well preserved examples to be found at a reasonable cost. In the US, collectors of Baby-Boomer dollhouses and dollhouse furniture have long felt that that Thomas Toys were worthy companions to miniatures produced by the four companies which dominated the plastic toy market in the US from 1945 - 1960, Plasco, Renwal, Ideal and Marx. The toys were not designed for “little homemakers” just to admire after placing them in the kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms and living rooms of their tin and fiberboard dollhouses. The company’s rubber-like figures could actually swing, slide, bounce, stroll and rock on Thomas’ well made playground and nursery pieces.
Photo 1: 1949 trade advertising flyer illustrating Thomas dolls with Thomas miniatures and the miniatures of others (courtesy of Bill Hanlon: www.usdimestore.com)
Thomas didn’t take on the big four by trying to produce their breadth of products, either for boys or girls. The company seemed to carve itself a niche in girls’ toys by focusing on soft plastic dollhouse figures, pastel nursery items and bright, primary colored, outdoor playground toys. These were well scaled, but not precisely sized in all instances, to the 1:18 scale popular in postwar US. The dolls and toys fit nicely into the houses by T. Cohn, Playsteel, Keystone and Rich. Judging from the number of unbroken, mint examples of Thomas’ miniatures, it seems clear that Islyn Thomas, the plastics pioneer and founder of Thomas Toys, knew how to design pieces that would survive a long time.
Photo 2: The 8 members of the Thomas Playtime family with their three pets in front of the mid-1950s Thomas My Little Dolly’s house.
The earliest foray into “girls’ toys” was an idealized “1950’s perfect” family molded in one piece from a soft plastic, Vinylite. Mom wore a flowing gown, and Dad was fashionably dressed in a double-breasted suit. A small 1.5” boy and girl molded in a sitting position were less formally dressed. Two diapered babies (1.25” and 2”) and the family’s cat and two dogs completed the initial line first offered in 1949. A 2.125” older brother and sister, the Playtime Twins, each molded in a sitting position, were added in 1950. A delightful set of 6 character dolls, dressed like children on their way to a Halloween Party, were likewise introduced in 1950.
Photo 3; The 6 Thomas character dolls left to right: Miss America, Gretchen the Dutch Girl, Hansel the Dutch boy, Hansel on her card, Kaptain Kiddy the pirate, the Majorette and the Scotch Ladd.
In the mid-50s a pair of 3.5” boy and girl “twins” were added. Hard plastic, colorful clothing served as the torso. The head was attached and rotated. Limbs were connected within the torso with elastic string. Although appearing oversized for the Thomas furniture line, they were packaged with some of the Thomas miniatures.
Like Renwal, Irwin, Plasco, Ideal and other manufacturers, Thomas made slightly larger baby dolls that were generally not designed to fit with their dollhouse furniture. While the other manufacturers produced their dolls from hard plastic, Thomas again utilized the rubber-like Vinylite , producing a 2” and 3” baby with diapers as well as a 2.25” boy molded wearing drop seat pajamas. Children and babies in the Playtime series were sold to complement many of the Thomas dollhouse products. Diaper babies were sold with the larger scale cradles. The Thomas babies were even adopted by other companies, like Renwal, who did not have the molding capability available to Thomas Toys.
Photo 4: The Thomas babies left to right; the pajama boy, 3” diaper baby, 1.25” diaper baby, 1.375” diaper baby, 2” diaper baby.
The families and babies were, at first, boxed in bulk lots of 6 or 12 dozen. With packaging becoming more important to retailers, starting in 1950, the mother and father were attached to a card picturing a big band and dance floor and sold as the “Dancing Couple”. Likewise, the Playtime family could be purchased on a colorful 5x7 cardboard decorated with a living room backdrop, as seen in photo1. The set consisted of both parents, a 1.25” baby, one older child and one younger child together with one of the three pets. Dolls and pets were also sold singly on smaller individual cards with a partial living room scene. Often these cards included a poem about the attached figure.
Photos 5a and b: Starting in 1950, the Thomas dolls were sold individually and in sets stapled to a card.
Photo 6: The reverse side of the dolls’ cards often had a poem.
In the mid-50s diaper babies were attached to cards with crochet instructions for little bonnets and dresses. Figures were all stapled onto the cards.
Photo 7: Thomas repurposed its dolls, reaching out to the crafts and party favor market.
Bill Hanlon, noted plastic toy authority and author, suggests on his website www.usdimestore.com, that stapling the toys onto cards may have been an early Thomas solution to the problem of shoplifting from the open dimestore bins and counter displays of the 1950s.
The Thomas miniatures line is easy to identify. Generally, the toys, produced between 1947 and 1956, are molded in hard plastic. Most items are clearly marked either with the Thomas name or with the name “Acme” – a marketing company, partially owned by Islyn Thomas. A 4-digit mold number generally starting with I- can usually be found as well. The Thomas/Acme connection can be confusing. Although Acme sold the products until 1949, Thomas Manufacturing produced them. After Dr. Thomas bought out his Acme partner, Benjamin Shapiro, Thomas both manufactured and sold the miniatures under its own brand. The name Acme was not taken off molds for products whose dies were produced before the consolidation of the two companies. Many of the Thomas/Acme line incorporate one or more of three very distinct parts that have become Thomas/Acme trademarks - the famous horsehead, a triangular support for swing sets, and a tiny chair.
The horsehead appears to be designed to fit on a “shoo-fly” rocker introduced in 1949 together with a horsehead stroller and a seesaw with double horseheads. Soon after, the horsehead found its way onto a “Tommy Horse”, a wonderful copy of the child sized leaf springed bouncer that many of us remember (now, with normal parental concern). The multiple use of the horsehead obviously saved design and mold costs along the way.
Photo 8: The iconic Thomas horsehead found its way onto 5 different pieces from left to right: seesaw, Tommy Horse, glider swing, shoo-fly rocker, stroller.
The triangular side supports on the 1948 Ferris Wheel were the same as those found on a glider, which combined the horsehead seesaw with a pair of the triangular side supports. A year later the supports showed up on single and double seat swing sets – an obvious extension for the part.
Photo 9: The swing set was offered as a single, double and an uncatalogued triple variation.
Thomas expanded his line of “carnival” toys. The 1950 catalog brought us “Jungle Jacko”, an acrobatic monkey who swung on an apparatus utilizing the triangular supports.
Photo 10: Jungle Jacko, utilizing the triangular side supports, expanded the carnival line.
In early 1951 a double seat Ferris Wheel that could be turned with a crank was introduced. The double Ferris Wheel, planned since 1949, used two triangular supports, although one was modified to accept the crank. Thomas also borrowed one side of the wheel assembly from the single Ferris Wheel.
Photo 11: The double seat Ferris Wheel, introduced in 1951 required a modification to the triangular side support to allow for the crank, and to the wheel to create the turning gear.
Thomas marketed the “carnival toys” without regard to gender. His 1949-52 truck line had a merry-go-round truck that was similar in design to Ideal’s slightly larger truck, also sold in the 1949-50 time period.
Photo 12: The Thomas merry-go-round truck (right) resembles the larger Ideal truck on the right, but they are clearly not copies.
The third “trademark” piece, a small chair fitting a 1.25” baby, is found in various combinations on many of the toys, from one on the unmarked rocker to four on the single Ferris Wheel. The chair served as the swing seat on the various swings and as seats on the dog sled. The seats attached by snapping the curved arms over a support appropriate to the base piece.
Photo13: The seat that was used on the single Ferris wheel, also found its way onto a small rocker capable of holding a Thomas doll. Two chairs made up the dog sled, which was also modified for Christmas sales.
Thomas/Acme made and sold a number of other delightful pieces, many with the same great play value and most introduced by 1949. The design of the “Acme Express” wagon mirrors the “sleek”, rounded look of the era’s cars.
The bed of the swinging hammock is molded to fit one of the small babies.
The line included an unremarkable, yet colorful sliding board,
and the company made a floating gondola swan that can be found both with and without rattles inside.
Photo 17: The larger “gondola swans” were sold throughout the 1950s.
Photo 18: In 1950 the swans could be purchased riding on wheeled trailers that could be towed by a Thomas vehicle. (courtesy of Bill Hanlon: www.usdimestore.com)
The stroller and two-piece baby carriage are marked either Acme or Thomas, depending on the year of manufacture, and each utilizes the same small treaded wheels found on the horsehead stroller and many of Thomas’ cars and trucks.
Photo 19: The stroller and pram with moving hood used the small treaded tires found on the swan trailers and other Thomas vehicles.
Thomas made at least three furniture pieces which are of a larger 1:9 or 1:6 scale: an unmarked Magic-Glo table lamp with a glow-in-the-dark shade:
Photo 20: The Magic-Glo lamps glowed in the dark after first being exposed to a bright light.
and two different cradles with uniquely molded headboards and foot boards – a cuddling teddy bear theme and a stork delivering a baby motif. Both were made in marked and unmarked versions.
Photo 21: Thomas made cradles in much larger 1:6 -1:9 scale. The head and foot board designs were charming.
In obvious competition with offerings of Renwal and Marx, the Vinylite father as well as the Playtime Twins found their way into a classroom set made by Thomas for Campbell Soup’s 1955 “Campbell Kids” toy line. The set included eight plastic hinge-top school desks with integral chairs as well as a real blackboard and paper cut-outs of textbooks and the teacher’s desk. The eight children and the teacher all had painted clothes, hair and facial features. Thomas issued its own identical Playtime School set in 1956.
Photo 22: In 1955 Thomas issued a school set as part of the Campbell Kids line of toys. The set was reissued in 1956 as the Playtime School.
When you study the Thomas catalogs between 1949 and 1960 you do not see a huge selection, especially in dollhouse miniatures and dolls – approximately 20 miniatures and 20 dolls were offered. Thomas was a genius at repurposing parts and repackaging his toys , offering them in different combinations in Christmas stockings, Easter baskets, toy chests, treasure chests, travel sets.
Photo 23: Thomas Christmas stockings, the girls’ version on the left and the boys’ on the right, were filled with an assortment of the toys.
Photo 24: Staying busy after the Christmas rush was a challenge. This 1949 Playthings ad shows that Easter offered another chance for Thomas to sell toys.
The mid 1950’s girl twin was packaged with a stroller and a small Vinylite doll attached to a card with a park-like backdrop, “Strolling in the Park”. Thomas also produced a small cardboard house with toys attached.
Photo 25: Packaging changed often, even when few new toys were added to the Thomas line.
Photo 25A: Toys were simply carded, mixing older toys with the few new toys of the line.
Unfortunately the lack of change in the product line was one of the contributing factors to the eventual sale in 1960 of Thomas Manufacturing. The toy market had exploded in the postwar years. Cheap imports from Japan and then Hong Kong drove down price levels of toys to the point that investing in new tools, dies and molds was just not economically sound. Companies like Marx could afford a much broader offering, not only because of their economies of scale, but also their willingness to move production to Hong Kong, China and elsewhere where labor costs were not at the generally unionized levels found in the US. Thomas chose not to go down that path.
The popularity of Thomas designs can be attested to by the number of times their design elements were borrowed by others. The horsehead was an icon that can be found on toys manufactured by Reliable of Canada as well as the UK’s Kleeware and Tudor Rose. Each of the horse heads is slightly different, so it is clear that they were not “cast copies”, but they are similar enough that their origins are clear. In fact, Kleeware and Tudor Rose not only “borrowed” the horseheads, but the seesaw and shoe-fly designs themselves.
Photo 26: Tudor Rose (front) and Kleeware (middle) clearly “borrowed” not only the Thomas (back) horsehead, but also the design of the seesaw itself. Each horsehead and swing had slight differences in their molded details.
Photo 27: Kleeware, known for aggressively copying toy designs from other companies, sold a close knock-off of the Thomas shoo-fly. The slightly smaller green Kleeware shoofly differed slightly in the shape of the seat and the handles of the horsehead, indicating that it was not a “cast copy”.
Tudor Rose and Reliable each produced horsehead merry-go-rounds that are near copies of each other.
Photo 28 & Photo 29: Reliable of Canada used the horsehead as well, as seen on the hard plastic merry-go-round on the left. Tudor Rose produced a very similar version in a softer plastic. Even the placement of the decorative details on the arms was the same, although the designs themselves differed.
The triangular support was also a common element. Tudor Rose not only made swing sets, but also a Ferris wheel. The Tudor Rose swing supports and side wheels were not as detailed as those in the Thomas models, but the similarity of the construction concept is obvious.
Photo 30: Tudor Rose produced swing sets much like the Thomas swings. The Thomas “ropes” looked braided; Tudor Rose’s lacked detail. The small seats on the Tudor rose also lacked detail.
Photo 31: The ladder on the Thomas triangular supports had flat rungs. Those of Tudor rose were round. The wheels themselves were quite different, Tudor Rose again opting for a simpler design. Curiously, Tudor Rose did not re-use its swing seats, as Thomas did.
Reliable also made a swing set using triangular supports, but each side was different from the other and the swing was an inch taller and half an inch wider than the Thomas single swing.
Photo 32: Reliable’s single swing was not only an inch taller than that of Thomas, put one of the triangular supports had a much different design. Thomas’ seat swung on “ropes”, Reliable’s were molded “chains”.
Ideal and Thomas produced similar collapsible highchairs, but certainly not copies.
Photo 33: Thomas(left and center) and Ideal (right) produced collapsible highchairs, conceptually similar, but quite different in size and design.
The laws governing patents and copyrights were dissimilar from country to country and most manufacturers could not afford to register their designs outside their home countries. In the immediate postwar years it was not unusual to see many “close copies”. Dr. Thomas played a large role in helping UK plastics designers and manufacturers restart after the war. He was a close friend with Peter Kove of Airfix and Eric Jones of Poplar Plastics.
Photos 34 a & b: Islyn Thomas, a Welshman, enjoyed personal and business relationships with a number of members of the UK plastics industry. Here Eric Jones of Poplar Plastics shares some interesting insights about competition and the marketplace. (courtesy of Bill Hanlon: www.usdimestore.com)
He even started Thomas & Jones Ltd with Eric Jones and they produced and sold molds and plastics, some apparently licensed from Thomas Manufacturing. Their market in the UK and on the continent was similar to that of Thomas in the US – Woolworth’s was their major customer as well. A variation of the mid 50’s large twin dolls was also produced and sold by Poplar. At that point in the decline of Thomas Manufacturing, one might wonder who, in fact, copied whom.
Photo 35: The cooperation between Thomas (standing) and Poplar (on card) seems to have spawned a very similar pair of twins.
The story of Thomas Toys is very much the story of Sir Plastic, Dr. Islyn Thomas.
Photo 36: Islyn Thomas in 1950 at age 38 (courtesy of Bill Hanlon: www.usdimestore.com)
Thomas was born in Maestag, South Wales, in 1912. In 1923 his father, a miner, moved Islyn, his mother, and sister to the United States and the coal fields of Eastern Pennsylvania. Thomas first took up tool and die making as his vocation. After graduating from trade school, he took a job as a toolmaker with Consolidated Molded Products Corp., then one of the leading plastics molders in the world. He continued his education, and by 1938 was named Chief Engineer. A primary focus of Consolidated was the automotive industry. The company was able to cut the dies for relatively simple projects, but for more complicated jobs, companies like Newark Die were the leaders, and would work with Consolidated in designing molds that would be used to cast the products. Thomas gained further knowledge of the plastics industry from Newark Die, as well as a wife, when he married the founder’s daughter. While working at Consolidated, Thomas helped his eventual partner, the small-plastics “middleman” Benjamin Shapiro, who had formed Acme Plastics Manufacturing Co. in the mid-1930s.
In 1942 Islyn was recruited to become the General Manager of the plastics division of Ideal Toy and Novelty. While Ideal was primarily producing war materials at that time, Thomas used the contacts and knowledge gained at Consolidated to acquire unused toy molds and huge quantities of scrap plastic left over from making military parts. Developing a method to separate different plastics, he was able to utilize the scrap and Ideal made a limited line of plastic toys that were eagerly gobbled up by the market, at relatively high prices. As the end of the war neared, Thomas went out on his own, forming three companies aimed at capitalizing on his vast knowledge of this “miracle” material, the most well known being Thomas Manufacturing Corporation. In 1945 he renewed his relationship with Benjamin Shapiro, and together they operated Acme Plastics Manufacturing Co. for a short time. Thomas Manufacturing began to design a whole new line of toys, molded by Hungerford Plastics Corp and distributed by Acme under its name. It was after Thomas Manufacturing had finally acquired its own molding capabilities and was thriving that Islyn Thomas bought out Shapiro’s interest in Acme. In 1960 he eventually sold Thomas to Banner Plastics. Banner apparently sold some of the Thomas molds to Alden’s. By 1963, small school sets and the “Halloween Children” were appearing on blister pack cards with the Alden’s tradename, “My Dolly’s”, replacing the mid 50s “My Little Dolly’s” of Thomas.
Photo 37: After the sale of Thomas Manufacturing to Banner, Alden Industries apparently purchased a number of the Thomas molds and issued toys in blister packs under the My Dolly’s tradename. The figures were molded in a harder plastic, not Vinylite.
Photo 37A: Magic-Glo Lamps were later made and sold by Roalex Co from the Thomas molds.
Thomas, having furthered his education in plastics engineering, continued to grow his reputation in the plastics field. In addition to helping reestablish the plastics industry in the United Kingdom, he was part of President Truman’s War Production Board and a member of the Commerce Department’s advisory committee on Toys and Games Manufacturing. After the sale of Thomas Manufacturing in 1960, Dr. Thomas “retired” to the life of a plastics consultant and Welsh-American cultural leader. In 1975 Queen Elizabeth recognized his industrial efforts, when he was named an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire –“Sir Plastic.” He died in May 2002.
Plastic - the “revolutionary material” - helped make dollhouses and miniature dolls available to children (not adults) of all economic levels. Plastic miniatures reflected the styles of the period in which they were made. The furniture had remarkable lifelike details, and many pieces could be “operated”.
Photo 38 & Photo 39: It was not unusual in the postwar years for chemical companies to place ads in mainstream and trade magazines touting the characteristics of the new miracle material – plastic. In 1950 Union Carbide, featuring Thomas Toys, told chain store operators to look for “safe, soft and irresistible toys made from Vinylite. (courtesy of Bill Hanlon: www.usdimestore.com) Dow Chemical’s 1949 Parents Magazine urged parents to pick Christmas toys “in bright colors . . . lightweight . . . safer . . . inexpensive” made from the Styron brand of polystyrene. Thomas Ferris Wheel was one of the featured toys.
Dolls wore up-to-date fashions and performed modern activities. They did not depend on sewing and painting to give them life, but rather on the highly developed artistic skills of modelers who gave them every minute detail. Islyn Thomas and the other plastics pioneers changed the concept of dollhouses, dollhouse miniatures and dolls – they became playful toys that Baby-Boomers remember and collect today.
Photos 40, 41 & 42: Most of the Thomas line of miniatures was introduced in its 1949 catalogue. (courtesy of Bill Hanlon: www.usdimestore.com) By 1952, like Ideal, Plasco and Renwal they began to cut back the breadth of their toy offerings. They could not remain competitive even at their 10¢ - 59¢ retail prices. (courtesy of Bill Hanlon: www.usdimestore.com)
A Request for More Information
It is difficult to tell a full “global story”. Even with eBay having a reach far beyond the US, it is impossible to know every variation of 20th Century dolls, dollhouses and miniatures. I have been lucky to add a few miniatures from the UK, Canada, Germany, HK/China and other countries to my collection, but I know there were many toymakers around the world that were active, especially in the post-war years. I would love to know if readers of this article recognize pieces that may bear similarities to the Thomas Toys. Please post any pictures or leave me a message with any information you might have.
A Word of Thanks & Acknowledgement
Twenty-five+ years ago, when I first started collecting dollhouses and miniatures, I focused on the Baby-Boomer era – toys I grew up with as a young girl. I am the kind of person that wants to know all about the objects I put in my collection. At that point there were not many books that shed light on the dollhouses, dolls and miniatures of the post-war era. Finally in 1993, Bill Hanlon published 'Plastic Toys – Dimestore Dreams of the 40s & 50s'. It was a revelation! While a good portion of the book deals with trucks, cars, boats and space vehicles, a healthy segment is dedicated to dollhouse furniture. The introductory chapters on the plastics industry gave most of us our first appreciation of how the toys we collected were made and sold. Throughout the years, Bill was always willing to share information and an occasional catalog page copy from his library. His work was a major inspiration when I decide to write my book on small dolls, 'Dollhouse and Miniature Dolls 1840-1950'. I knew I had to tell a well researched story.
When researching this article, I revisited his website, www.usdimestore.com. It is a marvelous place to spend hours learning about the plastics industry and Thomas Manufacturing, particularly. When I asked if I could use some of the material from the website, he quickly assented realizing that many of us are still hungry for information. I thank Bill Hanlon for his kindness and generosity in sharing his wealth of information.