Playing Around: 20th Century Die-Cast Toys Excavated at Ferry Farm

A lot of people don’t realize how many 20th century artifacts we excavate at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  Up until the 1990s, families lived and farmed on the property, leaving tens of thousands of artifacts behind.  Some of our favorite modern artifacts are the toys we recover, whether marbles, plastic army and cowboy figurines, doll parts, or miniature tea sets. In this blog, we look at three die-cast toys left behind by the many children who played on the same ground where young George Washington grew up. 

The first is a small die-cast coal car almost completely intact, except for its missing rubber wheels.  In archaeology terms, we call this artifact ‘talky’.  It makes an archaeologist’s research so much easier when “Midgetoy / Rockford, Ill / U.S.A. / PAT. / 2775847” is embossed on the underside of the car.  However, we still need a date range for this particular toy.  The patent number is a huge help.  After an Internet search, we discovered the patent for this toy was taken out in 1954 by the A&E Tool and Gage Company.  The patent specified an improvement in the wheels to make them rotate more smoothly.  To find the date after which this toy was no longer manufactured, we researched the toy company, Midgetoy, since the patent suggests the toy’s manufacturer started out under a different name.  A&E Tool and Gage was started in 1943 by Alvin and Earl Herdklotz as a defense-based precision tool-and-die business. After the Second World War, they changed their business model to toy making with the goal of creating low-priced die-cast toys.  Thus, Midgetoy was born. The company stopped producing toys in the late 1970s or early 1980s, which represent the approximate end date for this die-cast coal car.

Our next toy is a fully intact purple die-cast car. With “Tootsietoy Dragster / USA / 3” embossed on the underside, it’s another talky artifact!  Much like Midgetoy, Tootsietoy Corporation started off as something completely different.  Two die casting companies of the Dowst and Shure Brothers were established around the same time in the 1890s.  The companies merged and, in 1909, produced their first model cars: a limousine and Model T Ford. ‘Tootsietoy’ became a registered trademark in 1924. The dragster was not produced until much later, however.  The company didn’t just make cars either It made charms for Cracker Jack boxes as well as die cast dollhouse furniture.  It also produced promotional cars used by dealerships to sell full scale models.  Our dragster has a wedge body with a rear engine, which wasn’t invented until 1974, so this particular toy dates to the mid ‘70s or ‘80s.

The last toy is one of my favorites, a funky motorcycle.  When it was first discovered, our lab staff thought it looked a lot like a motorcycle from the First World War.  It has an elongated metal body with hard black plastic tires.  Admittedly, our archaeology department knows very little about motorcycles so we started to do some research.  Initially, it appeared as though the toy had no identifying marks. Closer inspection under magnification ultimately revealed that the larger back tire had ‘Corgi’ and ‘Made in Gt. Britain’ faintly embossed on it.  Our initial assessment of the toy being modeled after a World War I motorcycle was completely off.  Although, the toy looked complete to us, the bike was actually missing some parts.  Roughly modeled after a racing bike, it would have had a plastic front piece and a rider figurine. In this case, either Batman, Spiderman, or (our favorite) the Pink Panther, which we would love to recover in a future excavation.

Aside from these toys being fun to research while occasionally rolling across our desks as we make ‘vrooooom’ noises, they are also poignant reminders of the kids who played here.  The truth is that aside from the Washington children, we don’t know very much about the youth of Ferry Farm.  In many cases, the only record of them living on this landscape are the toys they left behind.  I often wonder who owned these little treasures and how they got lost.  Were the toys missed?  Would any of the adults who grew up at Ferry Farm remember them? When he’s washing a toy, Robert Bailey, a lab volunteer who lived here as a child, often wonders if it was one of his toys.  Regardless, these toys are a nice reminder of the young ones who once played on the same landscape as little George, and that’s pretty cool.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeology
Archaeology Lab Supervisor