Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Learning Toys

For those of us who were born in the latter half of the 19th century, the Easy-Bake Oven was always a highly requested toy on Christmas lists. I remember, when I first received my Easy-Bake Oven (a hot pink toy that looked just like my parents microwave), I would spend hours and hours mixing the cakes and cookie mixes with water, pouring them into their little metal pans and carefully inserting them into the machine, and then watch through the tiny opening as my treats cooked, as if by magic, by the heat of a single light bulb.

            What I didn’t realize, as a young child of eight or nine, was that my Easy-Bake Oven was not an original idea, but had evolved from generations of little girls learning to cook at their mothers’ sides, not for fun as I did, but out of necessity.

            Toys like the Easy-Bake Oven, play irons and even dolls were created to teach young children, particularly young girls, how to become the perfect housewife. And, while we might associate the Easy-Bake Oven with hot pink or avocado green plastic from the 1960s and 80s, toy ovens actually have a much longer history than plastic.

            As early as the late 1800s, child sized stoves were available purchase. These stoves were miniature versions of popular models of their day, which meant they were made of steel or cast iron, stove pipe and a place to add real hot coals or burning embers inside. "Cooking can be done upon this range," proclaimed one ad from 1898. Yes, small children of the 1800s were playing with toys heated by actual coals and, in some cases, flames. A far cry from our carefully incased light-bulb units.

            In the 1927 Sears and Roebuck Catalog available to Geary County residents, two types of real-to-life toy stoves were available for little girls: The Fancy Large Nickel Plated Cast Iron Stove, complete with stove pipe, coal scuttle and draft damper; and the more modern Combination Gas Range and Stove with blue trimmings. The advertisement for the new gas stove read: “A new Stove, just like Mother’s” and it truly was, with four gas burners, iron skillet, dinner kettle and lifter. But there was a purpose behind the danger. Little girls were taught at a young age how to stoke a fire, safely cook with dangerous materials and then clean up after themselves through their miniature stoves.

With the rise of electricity in the 20th century, these toy stoves evolved, though they still relied on children being cautious enough not to burn themselves, or their house, with the heating elements that allowed children to boil a pot of tea, or cook a tiny cake. An article in the Junction City Union on December 17, 1930 recounted toys available in local toy departments including toy percolators, stoves, irons and washing machines that could be operated just like mother’s were in abundance. These stoves featured an electric cord that could be plugged into an outlet, hot coils, and a fully working oven, which could get up to 500 degrees.

These heavy-duty child-sized stoves fell out of favor when World War II required all steel production to go toward the war effort. Children were required to use their imagination during the sparse war years, and mud pies were back on the menu.  But by the 1950s, the war had ended, plastic had hit the market and mass production was starting to take off in the toy industry. Suzy Homemaker baking kits, with prepackaged mixes and plastic ovens took off, and while these still looked like the grown-up ovens of the 50s, they had lost some of the fire power of the earlier brands.

Still, Suzy Homemaker was too dangerous and in 1963, toy company Kenner introduced the world to the Easy-Bake Oven. Hands-off cooking and safety for junior bakers helped the company sell their new invention and children nationwide were able to slide their tiny creations into the stove from the side, without coming close to the heating element. The play cook stove evolved further in the latter half of the 19th century, and the design changed from a full size oven and range, to the popular microwave look in the 1970s and 80s. Each design evolved to allow little girls, and boys, to cook just like their parents.

Come into the Geary County Historical Society to see an early 1930s electric toy stove. Scorch marks and a worn stove top indicate that a child cooked on this tiny toy, perhaps boiling a pot of tea for her dolls. And, of course, the evolution of the toy stove wouldn’t be complete without a 1980s hot pink Easy-Bake Oven. Both can be found in the Playtime exhibit through 2014.