Christmas is a time for nostalgia and what better way to portray what Christmas means to children than those two holiday classics, "A Christmas Story" and "Miracle on 34th Street." These two movies are set in the 1930’s and late 1940’s, and demonstrate the magic of the holiday season as seen through the eyes of the major characters.
The opening scene for "A Christmas Story" is the large decorated Christmas window at Higbee’s Department Store. Ralphie, Flick, Schwartz and Randy stare wide-eyed into the toy-filled window of the store. Lionel and Marx electric trains roared down the track and through the tunnels. Soldiers marched along and other sections of the window were filled with large metal trucks of all types.
Starting in the 1930’s, the large department stores realized that having a Santa Claus in residence at the store would bring in shoppers as the young children would wish to visit Santa Claus and give him their Christmas list. After World War II, two factors created a massive demand for toys for boys and girls. It was the period of the Baby Boom which created a greater number of children. Middle class prosperity meant that their parents could afford to buy their kids more toys. Santa Claus was moved into his new home of Toyland. Boys and girls could not only visit Mr. Claus but ask for the toys are their wish list. In those days, girls asked for dolls, doll houses and boys usually asked for the new big metal trucks that were coming onto the market. ...
Companies such as Doepke, Smith-Miller, Lincoln, London, and OTACO were creating fantastic fire engines, construction trucks of all types, and gasoline tankers. Each company was manufacturing trucks that were realistic in colour and appearance to the real ones seen on the road, right down to the tires being made of rubber.
Many of the companies were not even in the business of making toys prior to World War II. The Doepke Company of Cincinnati, Ohio was opened in 1946 by Charles W. Doepke and his brother Fredrick. Many toys manufactured after the war had a military aspect to them, but Doepke did not follow suit. The company manufactured large metal trucks of construction vehicles, a fire engine hook and ladder truck, along with a fire engine water pumper truck. Their #1 seller hit the market in 1949; and it was a steel construction crane. All of the Doepke vehicles were made of heavy steel construction and had rubber Goodyear tires. Sadly, due to various cost factors and a changing market for toys the company closed its doors in 1959.
When I was growing up in the 1950’s my Christmas list to Santa Claus usually included a request for a new Smith-Miller truck. Over the years my collection of heavy metal Smith-Miller trucks grew to include a covered US Army truck towing a firing artillery piece. Inside the truck were cardboard ammo boxes for delivery to the troops or shells for the towed cannon. One year I received a large boxed set which I can see even after 50 plus years. It consisted of a large cargo trailer being pulled by a silver tractor truck. A tractor trailer carried a full load of telephone pole logs. The last one I remember from the set was a new car carrier with six shiny cars loaded onto the trailer. I was a lucky kid - my aunt and uncle owned a toy store. New Smith-Miller trucks are still being manufactured. The company operated from 1944-1955, but was reopened in 1979 by a new owner Fred Thompson. Thompson discovered some of the original trucks in the warehouse which had been closed since 1955. The original rubber tires did not survive the test of time.
In Canada there were several companies that manufactured large metal trucks of all types. The London Toy and Lincoln Toy Companies of Ontario had actually started their businesses during World War II with contracts to make metal ammunition boxes for the army. With the end of the war, the owners of the companies looked out upon storage yards filled with scrap pieces of metal. There was a new demand for toys since the war had controlled the use of vital materials. Both companies’ combined produced 24 different types of large metal trucks. There were construction cranes, steam shovels, Massey-Harris farm tractors, stake trucks, lumber and logging trucks, and tow trucks.
A third Canadian company, OTACO, was founded prior to World War II. At that early stage the company manufactured farm equipment, metal fences for livestock, and wagon wheels. During World War II the company manufactured wheel assemblies and other parts for the famous Mosquito fighter bomber. Their annual report during the war years depicted a drawing of a Mosquito fighter bomber coming straight the reader. After the war, when the company discovered that its old business was no longer profitable, new products had to be found. An American named Anderson was brought from Indiana by The Royal Bank of Canada to manage the company. Looking around at all the scrap metal inspired the manufacture of heavy duty toys as the answer.
OTACO put out one toy in the late 1940’s, a steam shovel that opened the door to requests to make specific trucks. Private companies including gasoline companies, department stores, and food companies put in orders for scale model trucks manufactured in the correct company colours, with each company providing the correct paint chips for their trucks. The trucks were modeled on the same scale and as the Tonka trucks in manufactured in Minnetonka, Minnesota.
These trucks were not sold through the OTACO, but were sold by the contracting companies gas stations, food stores and other venues connected to the firms that had ordered the products. There were gasoline trucks for Esso, Texaco, Supertest, Irving (which had not only Canadian gas stations, but stretched into New England), Shell, White Rose, Hochelaga, and Sunoco. The Heinz Company depicted several different products on their trucks. In Ontario and other areas the trailers had ads for ketchup or other Heinz products. In Quebec the trucks had the logo for baked beans since more beans were sold in Quebec than anywhere else. In addition, on trucks sold in Quebec, one side was in English and the other French, due to the bilingual nature of Canada. OTACO named the trucks Minnitoys. A real Minnitoy truck is easy to document since the name was misspelled on the rubber tires, with only one n. Minnitoys sell in the range of $1,500 to $6,000 (US) depending on the logo advertising on the tractor trailer.
By 1960 the major large metal truck companies had closed due to the high cost of steel. But if you were a kid, trucks had moved into a new era. Plastic had become the leading material for toy makers and like Minnitoys, other companies hit upon the idea of selling their product through their store outlets. This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the first Hess gasoline truck. Leon Hess had founded the Hess Oil Company in Asbury Park, New Jersey in 1933. His company’s fleet consisted of one 1926 oil truck. Earlier this year the company was sold for $2.6 billion. The tradition of the Hess trucks will continue as a 50th Anniversary set has been released. Hess trucks are in the running to be inducted into the Toy Museum in Rochester, New York. In addition, there is a traveling exhibit of Hess trucks touring the Eastern Seaboard. Just google the Hess Company for days and areas.
As the company grew and expanded into gas stations (remember when there were gas wars, and prices went down, not up?), Leon wanted to provide a product to loyal customers and also to keep them visiting his gas stations. In 1964 the first Hess Gasoline truck appeared. Sold only in company stations it sold for $1.39 and included a battery. The first truck could be filled with water and had a long hose to let the water in and out, just like a real gasoline tanker truck. That first truck in mint condition can command a price of $2,500 today. Since 1964 the company has issued a different truck item each year. The magical time is the week of Thanksgiving. Gasoline tankers, trailers with an airplane, space shuttle and satellite, fire engine, rescue vehicle, helicopter, the list seems endless. Mr. Hess insisted that each item have some moveable parts on it, lights that flash, propellers that spin, and the company has always included a battery pack in the sale price. This is great since the last thing parents want to do on Christmas day is to discover a great toy, but no correct battery in the house.
In addition, Hess began selling miniature vehicles in mid-year to keep the customer coming into the station. Drinking glass sets featuring a different vehicle have been sold and this year one can purchase a poster which not only commemorates the 50th Anniversary, but pictures every vehicle with its year of release on it. The only non-truck was issued in 1966 with the launch of the "Hess Voyager" tanker ship.
Other companies have sold products in their gas stations. Texaco has sold trucks, and fire trucks since one of their gasoline products was known as "Super Chief" and the ad featured a child in a fire chief’s helmet. My favourite, purchased only a few years ago at a gas station is a zoo wagon consisting of a tractor trailer with the company logo and a trailer filled with large circus - type animals.
Now is the time to check out your local gas station to see what might be great to put under the Christmas tree.
Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.