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THE BOSTON SUNDAY POST MAGAZINE, March 29, 1953

He Never Grew Up

Cambridge Man at 70
Admits He’s Still a Kid in
Love With Toys - - - Has
Collection of Hundreds

By JAMES J. CANAVAN
 

Though many men of all ages have never outgrown their love of toys, only a small minority will frankly admit it, and those who glory in it, as does Francis L. Ball of Cambridge, are rare indeed.
     At 70, Mr. Ball frankly states that he gets greater thrill out of fooling around with toys today than he ever did in his boyhood years. One reason for this is that now he has hundreds of them, while as a youngster he had but a few.
     For a number of years he has spent the greater part of his spare time in attics, storerooms and antique shops searching for toys which were popular not only when he was a boy but in generations before he was born. The older the toys are that he finds, the better he likes them, and if some are broken he takes pains to repair them in his home workshop.
     “You might say I never grew up.” He chuckles, as he shows you a perfect replica of an old horse-drawn fire engine. “Such toys as this bring back a host of thrilling memories.”
     His cellar, rambling and spacious, looks like Santa’s shop with many shelves on each wall filled with toys, some shiny and bright and others old, very old, but still proudly heat and clean. Many of them are worn with the marks of care and affection.
     The toys have given Mr. Ball countless hours of enjoyment and no one realizes the great value of them as does he. Each is marked and catalogued and every one has it’s proper place. Since he retired five years ago from the presidency of the Malden Gas and Electric Company, he has fondly inspected and fixed every item in his collection.
     One of the nation’s experts on toys and their place in America’s history, Mr. Ball is always willing to share his vast knowledge.
     “Of course,” he says, “I’ve spent a great deal of time with my toys but every moment of it has been a happy one for me.
     It is a fascinating hobby for many reasons. First the history of toys is also the history of the world, more or less.
 
TEACH HISTORY
     “Every important event that has occurred has been depicted at some time or another in toy form for the amusement and education of children. Toys could be called, I imagine, replicas in miniature of the manners and customs of a by-gone age.
     “I know it seems hard to realize, but youngsters were pulling small wheeled vehicles along behind them as early as 1400 B. C.
     “The established method of manufacturing toys was not introduced until the later part of the 19th century. Here in America toys were being made as early as 1843 as a business enterprise. The famous J. & E. Stevens Company of Cromwell, Conn., was even then making cap pistols and other toys.
     Before that toy shops flourished in large cities of the United States but their products were, on the whole, imported from Germany, France and England.
     “The first examples of American toys were done in many cases by the village pewterer. Many of them show that they were lovingly fashioned by hand in the home of the workshop.
     “Prior to 1850 there was no widespread distribution of toys in the United States. The earlier ones were made with great care and thoughtfulness. They were first made from wood then later reproduced in lead. This was so the edges and detail could be sharpened, and then they were later fashioned in brass and bronze. Afterward sand molds from these were taken and after this cast iron could be made into working toys.”
 
KNOWS AGES
     As soon as Mr. Ball sees a toy made years ago he knows not only when it was manufactured but where it came from. Each of his toys has some bit of American history tied up with it. He claims the amazing part of the whole thing is how any collector can have even one rare old toy because there are so many collectors in the United States and each of them is constantly on the alert to secure the most-wanted toys.
     “American toys,” he continued, “are one of the best documented portions of Americana. Each toy has its special age and price. Naturally many of them, those that have become very rare, are worth more than the other more-recent pieces.
     “The new practice of many to collect these various kinds of Americana is very heartening.. Soon the toys of the past will be on public view, not only in museums, but in many other places so that they’ll always be available for people to see.
     “After the toy-making industry started in this country some toys had movements added by joints and levers, which not only brought a few dollars more, but also started a new era. Things like locomotives, that actually ran by steam, were even then becoming popular.
     “As the years passed toys changed. Circus wagons were perennial, but these like all horse-drawn vehicles, began about 1900, to be followed by automobiles and trucks. The first action toys they had, had a strange fascination for boys that has never decreased. The toys were gifted with action and life to amuse young and old. They produced astonishment and wonder. They were an American heritage.
     “All early American-made toys showed a fine craftsmanship and improvements made it possible to add movement and sound and so increase fascination for children.
     Mr. Ball spends many of his nights answering questions about toys. The mailman is always bringing letters from all over the country from people seeking information from him. Although he’s busy he finds time to answer all letters about toys. He especially likes to answer men asking about toys they had when they were young. The letters he gets are always filled with memories of the happy days of the past.
     “There’s a lot of happiness associated with toys,” he added. “Perhaps that’s why it holds such a fascination for me. Once you’re in it it’s hard to get out. I know.


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