The toy making all began in a one-story wooden building in Keene, in 1890, with James Wilkins who produced full-size clothes wringers at his Triumph Wringer Company (the original name of his company). When a miniature version of the wringer became popular, he decided to move his business to making toys. He began with cast iron fire engines and trains, and later Kingsbury largely expanded on what Wilkins had originally started.
Harry Thayer Kingsbury, of Keene in New Hampshire, was a 25-year-old bicycle shop owner with a talent for mechanics. He purchased the toy making business from James Wilkins in 1894. Ruggedness, power, and beauty were the qualities boasted of by the Kingsbury Toy Company, and the variety of things they made covers steamboats, airplanes, military trucks, farm equipment, zeppelins, buses, cars, postal scales, automated coin banks, garden tools and cast iron stoves.
Kingsbury used to demonstrate his toys’ durability through advertising. One advert shows three men standing on a firetruck as a test of its strength, another test showed the strength of the toy vehicles’ rubber tyres, which were advertised as being “volcanized to steel disc wheels” that wouldn’t scratch or come off. After the wheels were turned for the equivalent of 3,500 miles, only one-third of the tyre had worn away. Despite having seen these adverts referred to by several sources, I have yet to see them myself.
Kingsbury did more than make high-quality toys — the company was also on the cutting edge of technology. The construction of the mini-machines paralleled what was happening in the industries of the full-scale versions. For example, look at the Kingsbury company’s line of toy Chrysler Airflow cars from the 1930s — when Chrysler came out with a new model each year, they passed on the specifications to Kingsbury Toys, before they went on sale, so they could get started duplicating them in miniature for their toy line. In 1930, Kingsbury announced that all Kingsbury passenger cars were now being designed and built with "Bodies by Fisher", just as the real cars of the day were supplied. Kingsbury's automotive toys were released with battery-operated lights in 1931.
Kingsbury also made a range of race cars that were exact reproductions of the cars driven by record holders. The sleek, bullet-like Golden Arrow racer, circa 1930 and finished in bright gold and bronze paint like the original, is a model of a car Henry Segrave (later Sir Henry Segrave) used to set the land speed record of 231.45 miles per hour. The model was made under his approval and was endorsed by him.
The company’s toy airplanes also followed developments in air travel, from the Zeppelins to the tri-motor airplanes of the 1930s.
The most significant feature of Kingsbury toys, that sets them apart from today’s toys, is that they not only look like exact replicas of the real thing, many work like exact replicas. A Silver Arrow cabin model airplane with a wing span of 22 inches, was advertised as being able to fly 150 to 300 feet high, a sprinkler farm wagon sprinkles when filled with water, and a mowing machine has a blade that moves back and forth as it is pulled along. There is even a motorboat that takes off in the water when you pull the string at the rear.
Kingsbury toys originally cost from 50 cents to $30. What many collectors enjoy the most about them – especially the farm toys – is how they are accurate down to the smallest of details. “They are faithful in every way to the real thing, from the way the harness is cast onto the horse to the way the wagon is hitched.” said one collector in a press review. Today collectors will pay up to, and in excess of, $1,500 for a single toy.
The Kingsbury Toy Company made toys through to 1942, when steel became scarce during World War II and the company began manufacturing machine tools. After the war, the toy tooling was sold to the Keystone Manufacturing Company of Boston, Massachusetts. The Kingsbury company continued manufacturing, mainly for the automotive industry.
In 1998 the company was purchased by Iris A. Mitropoulis, who kept operations going, even in times of extreme hardship. Kingsbury Corporation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September 2011, in the wake of the financial crisis and attorneys representing the Kingsbury Corporation, filed a notice in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manchester on Jan. 8 2013, adjourning an auction of the company’s 300,000-square-foot facility and associated land at 80 Laurel Street. The auction was originally scheduled for Jan. 10, 2013. Efforts to sell the company and its assets appear to have continued right up until 2019.