Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tonka vs. Breyer

Sorry about that: my multitasking habit got the best of me again. When am I going to learn that it's really not a good idea to work on four bed-sized quilts simultaneously? (Each is at that stage where either I'm going to finish it, or it will finish me.)

I've been in this crafting frenzy, in part, because I want a relatively “clean slate” before I start any other long-term projects. (Also, it was a New Year's Resolution thing: some of these projects have been hiding in my craft closet for years, if not decades! I want them DONE!) One of them will be that Breyer-themed quilt I've often dreamed about: I found my woodgrain-patterned fabric in my stash a couple of weeks back and it's giving me … ideas.

One of the others, of course, is my long-term Breyer research.

I never really stop doing research: I'm always taking notes, acquiring reference materials and tracking down leads whenever and wherever they've turned up. It just hasn't been my primary focus over the past year or so. I have a number of half-written, partially researched blog posts sitting on my hard drive, too, that'll just have to wait until these last four quilted beasties are finally out of my hair. Which should be soon.

Most of my recent research has been of the fortuitous kind: a good example is a book I happened to run across at a Tuesday Morning earlier this year, in the midst of a “I deserve a pony” shopping excursion. I didn't find any horses that suited my needs, but I did find a surprisingly useful book.

It's Tonka, by Dennis David and Lloyd Laumann, published in 2004 by MBI Publishing Company. It's an attractive, well-produced coffee table affair about the history of the Tonka Toy Company: a little light on text, but with lots of pretty pictures, archival materials, and intriguing historical tidbits. I've always had an interest in the history of the toy industry in general – not just Breyer – and the price was right.

On the surface, both Tonka and Breyer have a lot of similarities: they were both post-war, Midwestern American manufacturers of iconic toy brands. They were contemporaries dealing with the same industrial, regional, and economic issues. Even thought their markets were a little different – Tonka is a little more boy-oriented, and Breyer is a little more girl-oriented – I thought the book might provide some good deep background research.

And it has, to a degree. As I said, the text is a little on the light side, and most of that is based on the recollections of a former Tonka executive, which definitely colors the narrative. (Everything was wonderful! Everything was great!)

The best parts were the brief interviews with former Tonka employees, who provide the most useful bits of information. One former lower-level executive, Lowell Fritzke, in discussing Tonka's efforts to move production out of the country, states:
“We were the first company in Mexico to do plastic injection molding, and the power would go out two or three times per day, which wreaked havoc with the plastic because it would harden up inside the machine”
Their factory began construction in 1981, and full production didn't begin until 1983.

Notice something odd about those dates? They don't exactly jibe with the history that the more avid Breyer enthusiasts among us know: Breyer had already made an attempt to shift their injection-molding operations to Mexico in the late 1970s. At least three molds were going to be shipped to Mexico, but only one – the El Pastor – was put into production, and those models were abandoned in Mexico due to a labor dispute.

(The others were the Stablemates Quarter Horse Mare, who for some time afterwards sported the infamous MEXICO mold mark, and the Donkey, who apparently suffered some long-term damage from the misadventure.)

I'm guessing that Fritzke's statement was just poorly-worded: perhaps he meant that they were the first American company to build a dedicated injection-molding plant in Mexico. Or maybe he was speaking of an earlier attempt or experiment that preceded their decision to move. Or maybe he just didn't know of any other company's attempts.

His comment about the infrastructure problems may also hint at the reason behind the SM QH Mare's molding issues, and the Donkey's rumored mold damage: did they suffer this damage in Mexico as a result of these problems?

Interesting how a book about toy trucks could provide such tantalizing clues about obscure bits of Breyer history, isn't it?

1 comment:

Becky Turner said...

I hope oyu wil psot photos of all the quilts oyu make when oyur done even if htey are not breyer related! I love quilts! I havent had time to make one in years.. well if oyu dont count hte small one I did for my dog wiht the spongebob material I found at walmart! lol.. But I do so love art quilts too.. someday Ill make another but Id love to see yours! Oh speaking of other toy companies.. when I was in collage getting my graphic design degree one of our teachers told us he used to be the art director for mattel for many years I guess! he told us some good stories but I cant remember a thing about them! I just remember they were good stories and they surprised me! lol.. He was the head of the design department at the college... he retired the year after I left.
Rebecca Turner