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December 12, 2012

The Suwannee Scribbler - A Christmas classic

Live Oak — Sometimes it is amazing where a short, seemingly uneventful train ride will take you.  It can completely change your destiny.   

Take the case of Charlie Pajeau and Bob Pettit.

It was the early 1900s when Charlie and Bob met while commuting to jobs in Chicago, Illinois from nearby Evanston. Considering their backgrounds, it is somewhat surprising the two became friends. After all, Charlie made his living with his hands. He was a stonemason. Bob earned his bread and butter by his wits in the mad house futures market of the Chicago Board of Trade.

No, they didn’t have much in common, except for a couple of important traits; neither appears to have been particularly enamored with his profession and both were willing to take a chance, if the right moment came along. As it turned out, it was Charlie who had that memorable moment.

Inspiration struck as he sat idly watching a group of children playing with a few empty spools of thread and several pencils. With those simple wooden household items, they were making three dimensional creations…and having a ball in the process!

That concept led to Charlie’s garage where “Tinkertoys” became a reality. Bob’s contribution, while perhaps not inspirational, led to the creation of a company---The Toy Tinkerers---that would manufacture Charlie’s invention.

The two fledging entrepreneurs were confident they had a winner on their hands, so much so that they had a display prepared in 1914 for the all-important New York City Toy Fair. Store buyers, however, didn’t give them the time of day. Perhaps it was because the previous year, the hit toy was similar in concept. That was the year Erecter sets first hit the market.

Despite their setback in the Big Apple, Charlie and Bob were undaunted. They were still confident they had a hit toy on their hands. They just had to find a method of marketing it on their own.

So before heading back to the Midwest, Charlie convinced two stores in New York’s Grand Central Train Station to carry the toy in return for very hefty commissions. The deal also included him assembling complex Tinkertoy displays in the windows of the two retailers.

And although there were sales, the toy wasn’t any sensation.

That changed back in Chicago and again Charlie gets the credit.
He approached one of the Windy City’s largest department stores with this plan; stock our company’s product on your shelves before Thanksgiving and I’ll give you an unforgettable Tinkertoy window display. He lived up to his word.  

Charlie had come to understand that selling is often more about the sizzle than the steak. So he hired several “little people,” dressed them in colorful, Santa elf costumes and placed them in a prominent store display window, where they spent the day building Tinkertoy creations.

The display was a hit and within a year, more than a million Tinkertoy sets had been sold.

The Toy Tinkerers Company established by the two-men has disappeared, but the famous product they introduced to the world 98-years-ago is still very much available from toy giant Hasbro. But there is some irony that goes with today’s product. In the first place, unless you pay extra for the “classic wooden” sets, the toy is now made entirely of plastic.   

Then there is the cost. Despite the fact that Tinkertoys are simplistic by today’s standards, it isn’t an inexpensive gift. Believe it or not, the so-called “Classic Construction Set” will tap your wallet for the better part of 250-smackers!   

Jim lives in Live Oak.

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