Toys, glorious toys, we are anxious to try them: A few pages on Reliable Toy Company Limited of Toronto, Ontario

Advertisement published by the Zeller’s Limited stores of Calgary, Alberta, which highlighted the Reely Ride-’em tractor produced by Reliable Toy Company Limited of Toronto, Ontario. Anon., “Zeller’s Limited.” The Calgary Herald, 11 December 1961, 32.

A slightly tardy Merry Christmas, my reading friend, even though yours truly must admit this is an odd Christmas indeed. It occurred to me that a toy, or a toy manufacturing firm, could be an appropriate topic for this week’s issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. A toy I may well have come across when I was very young. You know, before Noah and the Ark. When I had hair. And no, I am not bitter, but I shall be brief.

Before the First World War, the war to end all wars (!?), Canada had no toy industry worth speaking (typing?) of. Let us face it, Canada was pretty much a backwater, dare I say (type?) a land of hewers of wood and drawers of water. This, of course, meant that toys came from outside the country, mainly from the German Empire. Understandably enough, the war disrupted this dominance, which allowed Canadian manufacturers to move in.

Mind you, after the war, many Canadians were still not in the mood to buy any product hailing from Germany either.

Our story thus began in 1920 with the founding of Canadian Statuary and Novelty Company in Toronto, Ontario, by Alexander “Alex” Samuels and / or his brother, Solomon Frank Samuels, possibly with the help of another brother, Benjamin “Ben” Samuels. Yours truly has been unable to unravel that knot, which seemed to owe its origin to a family quarrel. In any event, Canadian Statuary and Novelty specialised in the production of plush toys and small novelties.

In 1922, the small firm became, you guessed it, Reliable Toy Company Limited, a firm owned by Solomon Franks Samuels and 2 other individuals. For some reason or other, voluntarily or otherwise, Alex Rutko and Egnato Dash were no longer on board as of 1923. Reliable Toy was now owned by Alexander and Solomon Frank Samuels.

In its early seconds, minutes, hours and days, the new firm produced dolls, possibly among other things, with German heads and American body parts. Said parts were made of composition, a subtle blend of materials like sawdust, wood flour, glue, resin and cornstarch. Composition dolls were far more durable and flexible than the porcelain dolls of previous eras. Reliable Toy soon began to make its own dolls, however – as early as 1922 perhaps. One of the firsts was seemingly a so-called Mama doll which cried when turned on its back.

And no, Reliable Toy did not invent the Mama doll. Nay. Such dolls, which produced a whiny noise a tad similar to that produced by a crying baby, if said tiny human was a dog’s squeeze toy, such dolls, say (type?) I, seemingly owed their origin to late 19th century crying dolls made in Japan.

The 1920s and, surprisingly, given the Great Depression, the 1930s were seemingly a good time for Reliable Toy. Already the fourth largest toy maker in Canada in 1924, it moved twice, each time into larger quarters. In 1933, the firm bought the assets of its main competitor, Dominion Toy Manufacturing Company Limited of Toronto, thus becoming the biggest cheese in the Canadian doll industry. By 1936, Reliable Toy had the largest toy factory in the British Commonwealth.

Would you believe that said factory included sections where the clothes and shoes of the dolls, not to mention their voice boxes, eyes and squeakers, were made? Reliable Toy even had a hairdressing department for the 300 models of dolls, produced in 1.5 million examples, which left said factory on a yearly basis.

And yes, princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary of house Windsor, today’s Queen Elizabeth II, got one or several Reliable Toy toys on at least one occasion during the 1930s.

Reliable Toy did its part to win the Second World War by making plastic bullet tips, plastic bayonet covers and plastic lubricating oil bottles for rifles. The experience it gained in this worthy effort proved very profitable indeed. You see, the war disrupted, nay, brought to a close the import of toys, toys being non-essential. This, of course, meant that Reliable Toy had the Canadian market all to itself, within the confines of the overwhelming need to produce for the war effort of course. Still, now that it was producing items in plastic for the Canadian armed forces, the firm began to experiment with plastic toys. The management knew very well that plastics were increasingly popular materials across the land.

Indeed, Reliable Toy used leftover / scrap plastic to produce some of the first, if not the plastic toys made in Canada, toys like airplanes, ships, vehicles and soldiers. The airplanes reproduced in plastic included the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire, as well as the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk and North American P-51 Mustang, 4 types of British and American fighter planes found in the stupendous collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario. And yes, the museum’s Warhawk is actually a Kittyhawk but let us not get bogged down in that detail.

And yes again, this work with plastics gave Reliable Toy an edge over its competitors after the end of the Second World War.

Reliable Toy founded Reliable Plastics Company Limited no later than 1948, and probably earlier, to take care of the plasticky side of its business. The two firms presumably operated from the same Torontonian premises.

And yes again, most of the women hired by Reliable Toy during the Second World War because many men were serving in the armed forces were unceremoniously / ungentlemanly sacked when said men returned to Canada after the return of peace, a short-lived return given the onset of the Cold War.

Over the years, Reliable Toy offered to Canadian children certain toys which proved to be of historical significance to Canada. One of these was the Barbara Ann Scott doll introduced in 1948 to commemorate the successes of a world famous and exceptionally gifted figure skater, Canada’s Barbara Ann “B.A.” Scott – a gentlelady mentioned in an April 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Another of historically significant toys was a plastic Avro Canada CF-100 Canuck all weather jet fighter, another airplane found in the stupendous collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

An even more important toy, arguably the grand champion Canadian toy of the 20th century, was the internationally recognised Reely Ride-’em tractor, one of the world’s first plastic pedal toy, introduced in time for the 1961 Christmas season and produced until 1969, if not later – the very toy portrayed in the advertisement you saw at the beginning of this article. Incidentally, a Reely Ride-’em tractor cost about $ 15 in 1961 (close to $ 140 in 2021 currency) – a sum which was very / too high sum for a textile worker like my father.

A problematic aspect of Reliable Toy’s activities in the 1950, if not the 1940s, involved the production of black dolls for the Canadian market. And yes, sadly, the features of these dolls included racially insensitive physical exaggerations, whereas those intended for sale in territories whose population was black were more realistic. I kid you not.

The name of one or more of these dolls, Topsy, referred to so-called topsy-turvy dolls, reversible / two-sided cloth dolls featuring 2 legless characters joined at the hips which originated no later than the 1850s on slave-owning plantations in the American South. Early topsy-turvy dolls had a white character and a black one. They were sometimes known as Topsy and Eva dolls, after the characters of the famous anti-slavery novel of 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, the young slave Topsy and the equally young but very white and free and sickly Evangeline “Little Eva” St. Clare.

Another problematic aspect of Reliable Toy’s activities involved the appropriation of First Nations and Inuit identity via dolls wearing “traditional” clothing, as evidenced in the souvenir catalogue of the Exposition internationale et universelle de Montréal, or Expo 67, held in… Montréal, Québec.

This being said (typed?), an Inuit doll known as the Koweeka doll was in production around 1939. It was seemingly associated with an important American producer of soft drinks, Clicquot Club Company, whose advertisements often included a young Inuit. As well, a First Nation doll known as the Hiawatha doll was in production no later than 1948, and probably earlier. A famous precolonial leader, Hiawatha was made famous by American poet and educator Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, but back to the problematic aspect of Reliable Toy’s activities.

Let us not forget that 1967, the year Canada celebrated its centennial, was also the year that the government of Saskatchewan launched, with the blessing of the federal government, its Adopt Indian and Métis (AIM) program, one of the programs of the infamous “Sixties Scoop” series of programs whose aim was to remove thousands of Indigenous children (more than 20 000…) from their families and place them in non-Indigenous families. AIM was the first and only targeted Indigenous transracial adoption program ever launched in Canada. Might the expression cultural genocide be an appropriate one to describe that program? I believe so too.

1967 was also the year during which the Innu of Labrador were moved to Iluikoyak Island, in Davis Inlet, on the coast of Labrador, in order to end their nomadic way of life – and better control them. This move, which also got the blessing of the federal government, was made with the encouragement of the roman catholic church and the government of Newfoundland.

The program and move proved highly detrimental to the Indigenous people involved, but, if I may be a bit of a wiseass, few of the non-Indigenous people who were busy celebrating the centennial of their settler state noticed, or cared, but back to our story.

By the mid-1960s, Reliable Toy was still one of the largest toy makers in Canada and had one of the most integrated toy factories in the world. And no, contrary to what its management might have said, Reliable Toy was probably not the largest toy maker in Canada. It might have been, however, the largest maker of fully Canadian toys.

By then, Reliable Toy toys could be found in more than 30 countries.

Reliable Toy’s sole competitor as a source of Canadian-made toys was Regal Toy Company Limited of Toronto. This firm, which made plastic and vinyl dolls, among other things, was founded in 1959 by the aforementioned Solomon Frank Samuels. The latter had left Reliable Toy as a result of a dispute with one of his brothers, possibly the equally aforementioned “Alex” Samuels. “Ben” Samuels joined the staff of Regal Toy around that time, as a vice-president.

The tensions between Reliable Toy and Regal Toy can be illustrated by what yours truly would like to refer to as the case of the anatomically correct dolls.

Once upon a time, around 1965, there was a 3-year-old son of the stylist at Établisements Clodrey and better half of the couple which had founded that doll making firm. That child mentioned to his proud parents that he was quite surprised that said firm only produced girl dolls. In turn, Catherine and Jacques Refabert were quite surprised by this insightful statement. Tiny humans are indeed a lot sharper than grownups think. They see things and remember.

Another version of the story has the smart tiny human asking his mom whether the dolls made in the factory of Établisements Clodrey were boys or girls. When said mom answered that he could tell which was which by looking at the dolls’ hair, the very smart tiny human looked at her quizzically and asked if that was how she figured out which was which. Tiny humans, you have to love them. We should put them in charge. They could not screw up the world more than us.

In any event, Catherine and Jacques Refabert set out to design a boy doll. The angelic doll created by Établisements Clodrey’s sculptor, using various examples of religious art provided as templates, was deemed to be a tad too angelic by the Institut pédagogique national, an arm of the ministère de l’Éducation nationale contacted by the firm. A doll closer in appearance to a real boy would be preferable. The Refabert and the sculptor thus went back to work. By November 1965, they had a prototype.

Petit Frère, as it was called, hit the shelves in 1966. The reaction of French parents was somewhat underwhelming. The new pretty well life size doll with its, err, you know what, was, well, indecent. Scandinavian parents had a quite different reaction, however. Many of them rather liked the doll. Would it be… indecent on my part to point out that Scandinavian parents were by and large Lutherans and progressive while those of France were mainly affiliated with the non progressive roman catholic church? All right, I will not say (type?) it.

Petit Frère was joined by Petite Sœur in 1967 or 1968.

Both dolls remained in production well into the 1970s.

Interestingly enough, an otherwise unknown Japanese firm launched a small boy doll dressed as a cave person at some point in 1967. Whether or not this toy was inspired by Petit Frère, or not, is unclear.

Would you believe that the introduction of Petit Frère on the American market, in late 1967, thanks to the efforts of educational toy store Creative Playthings Incorporated, did not go unnoticed? There was a huge uproar and many good people seriously activated their lips, which produced much in the way of free publicity and little in the way of sales.

The management of Reliable Toy was intrigued by Petit Frère and Petite Sœur, and bought the Canadian production rights of these anatomically correct dolls. The Toronto firm dressed its dolls in semitransparent pants and called them Little Brother and Little Sister. In turn, the management of Regal Toy was intrigued by the concept but thought that Reliable Toy’s presentation was in poor taste. Its staff modified Little Brother and Little Sister just enough to get around any patent laws.

Regal Toy’s knocked off dolls, the more discreetly attired Baby Brother and Baby Sister, also known as Petit Frère et Petite Sœur, which came out in 1968, were endorsed by some well known and respected Canadians contacted by Regal Toys, including Dr. Reva Appleby Gerstein, a psychologist and national director of program planning for the Ottawa-based Canadian Mental Health Association, and Dr. Samuel “Sam” Rabinovitch, a physician and director of the learning centre of the Montreal Children’s Hospital of… Montréal.

Rabinovitch was the brave individual who had been forced to resign his position of intern at the Hôpital Notre-Dame of Montréal, in June 1934, when all the other interns of the hospital, not to mention interns from 3 other Montréal catholic hospitals, went on strike to protest the hiring of a “Jew,” a protest supported by numerous members of Québec lay and religious elites. And no, the strikers faced no disciplinary action whatsoever. Indeed, the Université de Montréal, in… Montréal, seemingly reduced the number of Jewish students it would accept in the future. The mind boggles, but such systemic racism or religious discrimination obviously no longer exists in 2021.

Obviously. For sure. For sure.

Speaking (typing?) of boggled mind, would you believe that the exhibition Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition, presented in 2012 at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, a sister / brother institution of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, was the subject of dozens of complaints, and at least one telephone call from the minister of Canadian Heritage? Initially presented in 2010 at the Centre des sciences de Montréal, which had created it, this award-winning exhibition had caused barely a ripple in that city. The Ottawa museum felt it had no choice but to modify the exhibition, however. Again, the mind boggles, but back to our story.

From the looks of it, neither pair of anatomically correct dolls sold in large numbers but Regal Toy’s versions seemingly did better than their rivals, but back to our train of thought.

“Alex” Samuels died in 1966. His passing signalled the end of an era and the beginning of a slow decline of the firm he had led for decades. The firm’s new president and self-proclaimed bad boy of the Canadian toy industry, the ebullient and superbly dressed E. Mannie Grossman, would probably not have agreed with that statement, but such is life.

The fact that Reliable Toy was not the el supremo of the Canadian toy industry as the 1960s came to a close might be ascertained when one looked at the advertising budgets of Reliable Toy and Irwin Toy Limited of Toronto, a firm whose very successful strategy was to import and distribute toys made outside Canada, primarily American toys often made by poorly paid people in Asia actually. While Reliable Toy had an advertising budget, it was claimed, of $ 50 000 or so in 1970, that of Irwin Toy hovered around, it was also claimed, $ 1 600 000. And yes, much of that Irwinnian moolah was spent on television advertisements.

Grossman claimed the high cost of such advertisements had a negative impact on the price of toys. Besides, Canada had a relatively small population (21.3 or so million people in 1970, including 4.8 million francophones) which watched different programs in different time zones. Topping that off, Reliable Toy produced more than 1 300 toys. One has to wonder if Grossman was speaking from his heart or putting on a brave face.

In any event, youngsters living near the Canada-United States border spent a lot of time watching shows broadcasted by American television stations. According to the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement, a division of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, for every 10 or so Toronto-area children 11 or younger watching Toronto-area television stations on a typical Saturday morning, 65 or so watched American television stations. And yes, the most popular toys presented during the programs watched by these young humans were imported and distributed by Irwin Toy.

On a more cheerful note, a look at a 1970 Reliable Toy catalog brought back images of play in the 1960s, with toys like the Sand Sifter with Moulds and Shovel, and the Pop-A-Ball. I nonetheless also remembered the Bug Keeper – and cringe at the fate of the small arthropods which were imprisoned therein. They had and their kin have as much right to be on the Earth as we do. We are, after all, animals, just like them. Worse than them actually because we know what we are doing to the Earth.

And yes, our species will disappear one day, just like Tyrannosaurus rex and Raphus cucullatus.

The latter species is better known as the dodo.

Allied Sign Letters Limited of Toronto acquired Reliable Toy in 1985 and merged it into one of its divisions, Viceroy Manufacturing Company Limited of Toronto. Production soon shifted to the factory of that well-known Canadian toy making firm.

And that is it for today. Yours truly was indeed brief, by my own standards. Well, almost brief. Only 10 pages.

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Rénald Fortier