American made: Keystone of Boston dollhouses
by Florine Bettge
When we think of vintage American dollhouses, we usually think of the names Bliss, Converse or Schoenhut. These were the firms that started the popularity of the modern American dollhouses around the turn of the last century.
At the time that these three companies discontinued their dollhouse production in the early to mid 1930s, two new firms started producing dollhouses—the Keystone Manufacturing Company of Boston, Massachusetts and the Rich Toy Manufacturing Company of Clinton, Iowa. Both firms made dollhouses of decorated hardboard--a composite of wood fibers bonded with resins and formed into shape under heat and pressure. Hardboard is known under the brand names Masonite, Gypsum and Tekwood, and is often referred to as fiberboard or pressboard.
Both companies produced dollhouses of many different models and sizes; however, because both companies produced similar finished products, it is often hard to determine which firm produced a particular house. This article is about the houses produced by the Keystone Mfg Co and referred to by collectors as “Keystone of Boston” dollhouses.
From information that is available, Keystone produced their first dollhouses as early as 1935. Characteristics that help identify and date Keystone houses during the years of production are the exterior design, decorated interior, windows and shutters, roof and chimney style as well as the design of the front door. Rebecca has done extensive research on the Keystone Manufacturing Company and has come up with a very interesting maze of people and companies that created, as one of their many products, my favorite American dollhouses of the period between 1935-1955.
Two houses from the early years, and whose style pre-dates an advertisement of a Keystone dollhouse in the April 1936 issue of the trade magazine Toys and Novelties, are the following with interiors painted in a paneled design.
These are possibly the first dollhouses produced by Keystone Mfg.
The green-roofed house is the smallest of the Keystone models, only 19 inches wide and 11 inches tall; it is possible that Keystone designed this house specifically for the popular metal Tootsie Toy furniture produced 1922-37 by Dowst Brothers Co., Chicago, Illinois. Both houses have similar blue and green paneled interiors, screened exteriors and solid color roof. Even at this early stage, Keystone used different colors when producing the same model; I have two of the larger house, the other house has a green roof, blue shutters, and brown door.
Ad from the April 1936 trade magazine Toys and Novelties
This ad from 1936 shows a newer design in houses which included the new metal "swinging French windows" that was a design of the houses through the 1940s. This large dollhouse, an English half-timbered with double gables, was advertised in the 1937-38 Keystone catalog as having a wood staircase, built-in fireplace, closet with closing doors, walls decorated and a provision for lighting all rooms from house current. This is the only dollhouse during these early years of production I have found that offered these specialty items.
Pages from the 1938-39 Keystone catalog.
In their 1938-39 catalog, Keystone advertised "all metal windows open outward, guaranteed no breakage. No bolts--no nuts--no angle pieces. Roof need not be removed for playing. Speed assembly. Provision for electric lights." Rich Toys dollhouses had bolts, nuts and angle pieces--another characteristic that helps to distinguish between the two manufacturers. Keystone dollhouses were secured to their wooden frame with screws or nails.
The "swinging French windows" now had a surround of metal shutter replacing the shutter previously painted on the house. The different models were referred to as English half-timbered, early American, and colonial, plus an A-frame model was featured. Houses were decorated with side, front, or roof-top chimneys, fancy porticos embellished front doors, and some models had an extension with 1 or 2 rooms. Graphics on the exterior of the houses of this period resembled real houses….bricks, stone, lap-board siding, timbered second stories; however, the graphics of plants were simple, with green paint splattered to get the effect of greenery. Some interiors were painted white, while some were left the natural brown of the hardboard.
Two of the early Tudor models produced by Keystone Mfg. Both are missing exterior components.
The A-frame house pictured below was available in 1939, according to an article by Dee Snyder in the April, 1992 Nutshell News.
This dollhouse had the unique provision for lighting used for only a few years by Keystone. Although the transformer/ fireplace is missing from this house, it still retains the metal wall plates and bulbs used to light the rooms.
This "provision for lighting" available in some of the houses during this period has been explained by Charles Donovan in an article published in Miniature Collector in 2001. Lights were mounted on “metal plates...on each side of the interior wall….so that the sides of each socket touch one wall and the insulated end touches the metal wall on the other side of the wall.” The plates are connected to a transformer inside the attached fireplace which converts the 110v household current to 1.5v to light the bulbs. (Toy irons that plugged directly into household sockets were also available for little girls at this same time!)
Picture of fireplace/transformer and light sockets.
Cabinet on the right is built-in. Cabinets on the left were at one time built-in to a Keystone house, but which one?
During the war years many companies joined the war effort and started producing war-related items, resulting in fewer toys being produced. With most steel concentrated on the war effort, Keystone's manufacture of steel trucks and riding toys took a back seat to toys that could be made with other available materials. Keystone added new models to their dollhouse line, like the five new ones shown in the 1942-43 company catalog
Pages from the 1942-43 catalog.
New graphics of plants and trees found on the exterior added a gracefulness and beauty to these new designs. Models were available with sturdy plywood floors that were often painted with colorful rug designs. Houses had extended porches with porticos, hanging porch lights, and “potted” plants attached to porch columns. In addition, there were built in kitchen cabinets, wood stairs, and window awnings available. I've found several references to flocked rugs being available in Keystone houses, but have not actually seen any houses so decorated. Keystone Mfg and Rich Toys seemed to have a monopoly on the toy catalogs, as most major stores and some smaller store catalogs sold both brands, often fully furnished with wooden dollhouse furniture.
Charles Donovan also shares that dollhouses could be ordered from the factory with or without the decorated interior walls and painted rug designs. A case in point is the Southern mansion shown in the above catalog pictures. The catalog indicates the house has six rooms; I have two of these models with four rooms each... note the differences in the pictures below:
The plain model is above top, while the model that could be ordered with stairs, screened wallpaper, stenciled "rugs", and built in kitchen cabinet is below it. This model was also 4" wider than the plain model (shown below) although the exterior is the same.
Along with the new exterior graphics of plants and trees came a new design in roof decoration that stayed with the houses through the end of production. The first roofs were a solid color, next came the painted L-shape design of shingles. The last roof design is a multi-patterned, multi-colored shingled roof that looks like it has patches of sunlight. The characteristics of the different roofs are good ways to identify Keystone houses.
The house below, from the 1942-43 catalog--with unpainted plywood floors and plain white interiors--shows the new design in Keystone roofs.
The small house below is from the mid 1940s when Keystone discontinued the metal shutter-frame and started painting shutters on the houses. Different designs were used to decorate the shutters, and this is a characteristic that causes confusion when trying to determine if the house is a Keystone or a Rich Toys house. In the late 40s, Rich Toys almost consistently used a pine tree to decorate the shutters on their houses; many collectors assume that if there is a pine tree on the shutter, it has to be a Rich Toys house. I have Rich Toys houses from this period with a flower design and also a sailboat design. Besides using a pine tree, Keystone also used several different shamrock designs, a candle, a diamond design plus paneled, louvered or painted wood shutters.
By the time the 1946 Christmas catalogs were printed, a new design of Keystone house was available with an impressive pitched roof, one or two chimneys, floors silk-screened to simulate real "wood floors", and again the metal swinging French windows, columned porches with hanging lights and potted plants. These houses ranged in widths from 26 to 32 inches. The unusual aspect of these houses was that they all shared the same interior design--screened colorful wallpaper, a stately curved stairway as well as a closet featuring opening doors in an upstairs room. With the “new” design of these houses, the front door became larger--from 4.5 to 5.5 inches tall and the metal shutters, which before framed the windows, were now painted directly onto the house. Most houses included a fireplace in the living or dining room and a turntable on the bottom for easier play. A single light bulb hung at the top of the stairwell to light the house. In Miniature Collector, February, 2002, Charles Donovan says, "The fireplace and upstairs closet were not installed in dollhouses made under contract for Sears Roebuck and Co. Again, this was likely a cost-saving measure so that Sears could advertise and sell their Keystones in the Christmas ‘Wishbook’ at a significant savings to the consumer." At this time, Keystone houses were fully constructed at the factory; it was only later, in the early 1950s, that they were sold boxed flat in kit form.
Here is the interior of the largest house, known as The Birches (because of the sign on the lower left) and four houses produced with this interior.
The four houses shown below share this same interior.
The year 1949 brought another innovative design for Keystone Mfg as they were starting to compete with the tin/metal dollhouses produced by Louis Marx, T. Cohn and Playsteel. The new design featured extension rooms that pivoted on a metal rod to the interior of the house for easier storage--Keystone called their new concept the "Put-A-Way" dollhouse. There were two models of this design: a large house that came with either one or two extensions and a smaller house with a single extension.
The larger model came equipped with wooden stairs, built-in shower, a closet, kitchen cabinets and dining room bookcases. The model with two extensions featured both a kitchen and a garage that "put-a-way" into the body of the house, as well as a covered terrace on the front of and over the garage. This same model with one extension featured a kitchen with roof-top terrace as its' "put-a-way" room. Windows on these models were also newly designed; a transparent mid-century modern "picture window" framed in plastic graced the lower floor, while twelve-paned plastic windows were found on the upper floor. In addition, the roof also lifted off for easier play.
This house was also sold with a single room extension on the right.
The bedrooms and kitchen have been wallpapered with contact paper. The shower curtain is original to the house.
The smaller model with one extension contained a bedroom, bathroom, living/dining combination and had a kitchen with roof-top terrace that "put-a-way" into the house.
On many days this is my favorite Keystone house.
Rear view of small "put-a-way" house.
Here are two of the houses produced in 1950 and seen in the FAO Schwarz catalog that Christmas.
Both houses have a different designs but similar interior decorations to the put-a-way houses. This yellow house has a garage that opens and built in kitchen cabinets....
The garage door opens half-way.
Rear view of yellow Keystone house.
....while the blue shuttered house has a picture window on the side of the house and beautiful graphics.
Both of these houses have battery packs on the top wall of the second floor that connects to flat bulbs in the top and lower rooms to light the houses.
One last house was produced and is shown in the catalog of 1955; by this time the company was known as Keystone Wood Toys. At 36 inches wide and 16 inches deep, this was the largest of the Keystone houses made--a two story with corner stairs, movable interior walls, an extension housing a bathroom as well as a kitchen with beautifully painted tile floors.
Page from 1955 Keystone Wood Toys catalog.
Instead of a painted design on the walls, this Keystone house has real wallpaper.
My last produced Keystone house, still boxed, is a four room version of this house shown on the above catalog page. However, instructions included for set-up indicate it was made by the Keystone Division of South Bend Toys.
A house similar to the largest house above, with different facade and wallpaper, was sold in the FAO Schwarz Toy Catalog as late as 1967; it is possible that a Keystone company manufactured this house for FAO Schwarz, a well established toy store in New York City, that had specialty dollhouses built to sell exclusively in their stores.
Keystone Wood Toys ceased production of dollhouses at some point after the largest dollhouse was produced, but I will let Rebecca continue with their amazing story........
All of my Keystone of Boston dollhouses, showing interiors and identifying brands of doll furniture, can be found on either of my two squidoo websites:
A thank you to Charles Donovan and Marcie Tubbs for invaluable information contributed.