TOY EXHIBIT

Details of toys are shown in an exhibit at the Bell County Museum in Belton on Dec. 3.

Santa Claus and his aeronautical “tundra hoofers” dash away every Dec. 24, no matter the weather or the chimney size.

Except in 1919, when rail strikes on earth were predicted to ground even the most magical of sleighs.

“Strikes and the shortage of fuel have curtailed the output of factories, and manufacturers of Christmas goods have been unable to fill their orders,” Felix Frank Nesesta (1887-1974), Temple dry goods store owner, told the Temple Daily Telegram. “Christmas goods are scarce. There is hardly enough to go round.”

Even though World War I wasn’t fought on U.S. soil, once-plentiful raw goods had been redirected to the war effort, leading to a scarcity of toys and other gifts after the war. Compounding problems, the American Federation of Labor organized a nationwide strike, while workers in other industries demanded higher wages, an eight-hour workday and recognition. The effects of the strike rippled throughout the country, including rail service to Bell County.

Before the war, Europe had been the biggest supplier of holiday toys. Two-thirds of all toys were produced in Germany before 1915. France and Spain were other sources of U.S.-bound toys. The variety was enough to put a North Pole elf out of business — wooden tenpins, spinning tops, child-sized furniture, soldiers, model trains, marionettes and barnyard figures.

Then, the war blanketed all of Europe.

The post-war period created an unusual situation — people wanted to buy, but the shelves were quickly emptying. “There is so much buying going on that if the shopper doesn’t get what he wants soon, he won’t be able to get it all,” reported the Telegram. In other words, buy early and often.

Even among shortages brought on by the Great War, Bell County yuletide shoppers had many more choices and advantages than their ancestors in the 19th century.

Elizabeth Silverthorne of Salado, author of “Christmas in Texas” (Texas A&M, 1991), said early Texans ingeniously used what they had to fashion toys for their youngsters. “Early Anglo-American Texans often led hardscrabble lives, and many of their holiday celebrations were impromptu and spontaneous. Evidence of their creativity in making Christmas gifts can be seen in museums, where rag and cornhusk dolls, whittled toys, string balls and pieces of embroidery and crochet that once hung on pioneer Christmas trees are displayed,” she said.

Silverthorne also listed other handmade objects of delight including toy wagons, willow whistles and stockings filled with nuts, oranges, apples and “perhaps a hard-earned dime in the toe.”

Bell County started moving from an agricultural economy in the late 1800s, just as the American middle class was rapidly changing, mostly thanks to railroad expansion. Toy variety expanded as markets developed.

Advertising in Temple and Belton papers merely announced the availability of generic toys, with no mention of types or brand names. For example, in 1885, the downtown Temple store of Hodes & Viet announced a new shipment of “toys, tin ware, glassware and Majolica” for Christmas shoppers.

In 1896, a Temple Daily Telegram columnist mused about how times had changed over the previous three decades. “Christmas was made happy to the little folks with a few tin toys, some apples, oranges and striped candy. Today the expenditures are 10 times as much…. Does the amount of money spent for Christmas toys prove prosperity?”

The current Bell County Museum exhibit has the answer: money can’t buy a child’s smile.

The museum takes a peek into the elves’ workbenches in its current exhibit, “What’s in Santa’s sleigh? Toys!” featuring the playthings that delighted several generations of children from the 19th century to present. The museum staff has also designed interactive toy stations, where grandparents share their sweetest memories with their grandkids.

No batteries are needed.

The toys were gathered from the museum’s permanent holdings as well as loans from Temple’s Czech Heritage Museum plus dozens of local residents. The museum exhibit, 201 N. Main St., Belton, is better than a trip to the North Pole — and a whole lot warmer.

Aside from the sheer joy of seeing so many things that go buzz-pop-whirr, the exhibit is a visual roadmap of how society, culture and technology have merged — ranging from horse-drawn wagons to micro-chipped rocket ships, from Legos to Mr. Potato Head, and from bisque baby dolls to “Astronaut Barbie.” Aside from the educational value and mirrors into popular culture, generations cherish the sentimental value, a large part of why toys are so much fun to look at.

So, more than a century ago, what did youngsters really want from Santa’s sleigh?

The Temple Daily Telegram by the early 1900s regularly began running children’s letters to Santa Claus — mostly as broad hints to local retailers (and parents) about the most sought-after playthings. Nowhere are the changing times more apparent than in these hundred-year-old news pages.

The Telegram’s December 1910 issues published children’s letters to Santa that give insightful glimpses into children’s heart’s desires back then: BB guns, dolls and buggies, candy, nuts and wagons. Others asked for clothes, shoes, paper tablets, pencils and bicycles to ride to school. Many asked for gifts for others such as for their parents and siblings, including “a teddy bear for my little brother so he won’t cry.”

Perhaps the most touching letter to Santa was from Milton Lewellen (1904-1974), then almost seven years old who thought about someone who wasn’t as blessed as he. After asking the red-suited guy for “apples, oranges and bananas,” he added, “And, Santa, please bring these things for Negro Tom: wash pan, lantern, towel, cake of soap and some apples.”

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