When viewed separately, three of the four Toonerville Trolley lithographed tin wind-ups appear to be the same toy. It is only when you have them side by side that you can see differences and sometimes the differences are very subtle. The three Toonervilles starting on the left, were made in Germany in the mid-1920s by H. Fischer, Nuremberg. The fourth Toonerville (far right) was made in Japan, maker unknown, probably circa 1930.
To understand why there were three different German wind-up trolleys that look to be the same toy, you only need to understand the economics of the toy trade. It was a very competitive business, and in the 1920s the German toy makers dominated the American market for tin wind-up novelty toys. In the second half of the decade, the U.S. government imposed a new, higher import tax on metal toys—Trade War! The German companies lost their price advantage while maintaining their quality advantage, but as the 1930s unfolded it was all about price. As a result of this import tax or duty on metal toys, by 1932, Louis Marx, J. Chein, and other American manufacturers became the dominant players in the U.S. and quickly squeezed out the Germans. But the three different German wind-up trolleys made by H. Fischer, Nuremberg, were imported into the U.S. BEFORE the import tax took effect, so in a way they were really only competing against each other.
Discussion One: The Three German Wind-Ups
There are three different German wind-up trolleys, which represent three different price points and therefore had the potential to appeal to the broadest possible demographic. The trolley on the left of these German variations is the one most readily available today, which means it greatly outsold the others in the 1920s. I’ll call it the Toonerville Trolley Classic toy. The second variation in the center I’ll call the Toonerville Trolley Down Market toy, and the third German wind-up I call the Toonerville Trolley Up Market toy.
A few pennies saved in production cost could mean a lower price point and increased sales at the low end. Here is where the fun begins. Can you see or do you know where Fischer saved those few pennies on the Down Market toy? Let’s start with the mechanism, which may represent the biggest savings.
The Classic toy has a complicated mechanism involving stop-and-go and shaking. It has an eccentric axle with offset wheels that cause the toy to wobble as it moves forward. The Skipper holds the tiller in one hand. That hand is connected by a rod to the mechanism, so that when the trolley moves forward the Skipper moves forward and back and the tiller is moved as if he is steering.
The Down Market toy has a simple and much cheaper barrel mechanism. It has an offset wheel so that it does wobble, but the Skipper’s arm is not connected to the mechanism. There is no tiller. To create movement around the Skipper, he is placed on a spring. Forward movement causes him to bounce around a bit. The most curious penny saver is the absence of the electric take-up wire on the roof. When I was first shown this toy, I thought the wire was missing since there is an empty hole in the roof where the wire would go. Subsequently, I saw one for sale in the original box and realized the box was slightly smaller than the box for the Classic. The two boxes have identical graphics but the Classic toy is too big to fit into the Down Market box because of the wire. By removing the wire Fischer saved at most a penny and maybe saved another 1/10th of a penny on a slightly smaller box. The original box for the Down Market toy is very rare while the box for the Classic is often for sale.
The third German wind-up I call the Toonerville Up Market toy is designed to run on railroad tracks. It sold for the highest price and in a bigger box that included the track. Once again the box graphics are identical; in fact the labels on all three boxes are identical in size. The only thing that changed was the size of the cardboard box. The original box for the Up Market toy is also very rare.
The Up Market toy is a wind-up and has essentially the same expensive mechanism as the Classic, but with a different connection between the wind-up and the Skipper’s tiller arm. The big difference is the wheels. The Up Market toy has more expensive wheels to run on the train track. There is no offset to the wheel and therefore no wobble as it moves forward. The Skipper moves back and forth as he steers with the tiller just as he does on the Classic.
To summarize, the three German wind-up trolleys have identical bodies with same size Skippers but with variations to the wheels and mechanism. The original boxes have identical labels but each of the boxes is a different size.
Discussion Two: The Japanese Wind-Up
The fourth of the wind-up Toonerville Trolleys was made in Japan circa 1930. It is significantly larger than the German toy that it copied. Its size makes a great impact when the toys are seen side by side.
The Japanese toymaker made quite a few changes. The mechanism is not as complex as on the Classic but it is better than the mechanism on the Down Market toy. To create the wobble, there is a bend in the axle so there was no need to offset the wheel. The Skipper does not have a tiller and he stands on a spring like the Down Market Skipper. The Skipper is of curious construction. The German Skipper is a flat tin figure lithographed on both sides with two flat tin arms. The Japanese Skipper is two individual flat tin pieces with litho on the outsides and no litho on the inside halves. There is only one arm. The other arm isn’t missing—it was made with just one arm.
The Japanese copy also left off the electric takeup wire which leads me to believe that they had only the Down Market toy to copy and because there was no wire there is no need to have the empty hole in the roof. There were also some color changes, most notably the sky blue on the Japanese roof that matches the blue on the floor of the Germany trolley. Also, the Japanese smokestack is green rather than charcoal grey. Otherwise, you could say that the Japanese toy is an oversized but slavish copy of the Down Market Trolley. All four trolleys include No. 280098 on both sides along with the copyright date 1922 and the name of the strip’s creator, Fontaine Fox. Just above the Skipper’s head on the roof canopy it reads “Made In Japan.”
I believe that there are only two, maybe three, examples of this toy in the U.S., making it, in my opinion worth more than the three German trolleys combined!