The history of an American toy company mirrors the times and society in which it flourished – the interests and advancements, the wars and regulations, and the changes in values and popular tastes. The story of J. Chein & Co., one of the great American toymakers, also reflects the personalities that guided and shaped it:
- a one-armed aristocrat of industry;
- a one-time Vaudeville performer;
- a practitioner of modern manufacturing and marketing, assisted by a former member of the Strategic Air Command.
It was their vision and innovation, their business savvy and sensibilities, and their devotion to their creations that kept the company in operation for seventy-three years. Chein toys, a production as boundless as a six-year-old’s imagination, were cherished by the children of seven decades, and they are cherished by antique collectors today.
But the company ceased toy production in the mid-1970s, constrained by limits set from without and within. By turns farsighted and shortsighted, economical and extravagant, daring and hesitant, the leaders at Chein navigated the ebb and flow of a difficult, extremely competitive industry.
“It had its ups and downs,” former company official Robert Beckelman recalls. “The toy business was a roller coaster.”
The ride began in 1903, in a loft in New York City. On May 27th of that year, a group of four men and one woman laid the groundwork for a new venture, a metal stamping operation, to be located at 413-415 West Broadway, Manhattan.
The certificate of incorporation of signed on July 1 by Abraham A. Kotzen, who invested in five shares of capital stock; Morris N. Kotzen, who purchased one share; George Sang, one; Julius Chein, one; and his wife, Elizabeth, two.
J. Chein and Company was born that day for those ten shares, “amounting to the sum of $1,000.”
The July 1, 1903 meeting was presided over by the majority shareholder, Abraham A. Kotzen, and was held in the company’s temporary headquarters, Kotzen’s office, at 309 Broadway. But the driving force behind the business was the man for whom it was named.
The son of Isaac Chein and Freide (nee Trager) Chein had come to New York from Russia in 1893 at the age of twenty. The young Jewish emigre arrived in the US with only one arm; the other was lost in a fireworks accident when Julius was a boy. The physical disability didn’t seem to hamper him, however. He was launching his company within ten years of his arrival in America.
In June of 1903 Julius filed for his first patent for what he simply called “Toy.” He described it as a “harmless device for the amusement of children.” It consisted of a runway track with a spiral loop, an open car, and two small riders.
“The device is operated as follows: The car is placed upon the platform with its wheels in the grooves of the runway. The operator pushes the car from the platform onto the runway, when the car will be drawn down the runway by the force of gravitation, and at the spiral loop the momentum of the car will carry it up and around the inner side of the spiral loop, the momentum of the car being sufficient to overcome the attraction of gravitation…the car will pass up the inclined runway beyond the spiral loop to the platform.”
Chein had invented the company’s first roller coaster toy. He followed that up in 1906 with his “Frying Pan Rattle,” and in 1908 shared credit with David Heymann for the invention of a “solderless steel fish horn.” A third instrument, a tin drum, was patented the following month. Chein’s line also included penny toys, dump carts, four-wheeled wagons, pony carts, a variety of horse-drawn wagons, and several banks resembling miniature safes.
The start of World War I in 1914 contributed to Chein’s success. When his principal client, the Woolworth company, was no longer able to purchase toys from Germany, Chein moved into production of spinning tops, which had been popular imports up until then. Toy spinning tops would continue to be a mainstay of the company up until its final season of toy production in the 1970s.
In March 1915, Chein applied for a patent for an “Air-Gun” that shot cork bullets. He returned to toy safes in May 1915, with a patent for a bank that included a slot at the top for the coin and mechanism that registered the amount deposited. He also patented improvements to his toy wagon, a new wheel barrow and a push “Go-Cart” in 1916. In September 1916, Chein received the patent for his “Toy Cash Register” and in October for a “Toy Locomotive.”
The last patent that bears J. Chein’s name as inventor is a toy telephone, published in the Official Gazette of the patent office in July 1919.
J. Chein History of Trademarks & Logo’s (from above picture left to right, top to bottom)
- The elaborate early Chein trademark was used in print advertising from the 1900s to 1920s.
- The circular, or semicircular, logo is the earliest mark found on Chein toys. It was used from the 1900s to 1920s. The mark without a circle drawn around it usually appears on toys produced in the 1900s to 1910s.
- The circular logo sometimes appears on a white field, or another color, often yellow, to make it stand out in the litho design.
- The early shield logo has a shaded portion behind the company name. It was used from around 1933 to the early 1950s.
- In the early 1930s to early 1940s, Chein sometimes used a red, white and blue shield logo.
- The shield logo with no shaded portions was adopted in the early 1950s and was used through 1965.
- The clown face logo was adopted in 1966 and was used through 1968.
- The logo with the spiral dotting the “i” appears on toys produced from 1969 through 1972.
- The words “Made in USA” were added to the Chein Playthings logo in 1971 to 1972.
- The last logo used on Chein toys was the large spiral symbol above the words “Chein Playthings.”
For much more on J. Chein toys please refer to: