A Brief History of Tinkertoys, the Ever-Present Christmas Present

Tinkertoys were invented in 1913-14 by Charles H. Pajeau and Robert Pettit. Pajeau had watched kids playing with empty spools of thread and pencils and decided that A. C. Gilbert, whose Erector Set had debuted the year before, was on to something: Kids would play with things they could build with. Today’s marketers would also add that starting out with a small set of Tinks (that’s what we called them, though the company started out being called the 'Toy Tinkers') only led to strong desires for larger and more complicated sets. But back then the idea was a novelty.

In 1915 Padeau worked out a deal with Marshall Field, the savvy retailer who filled the entire fourth floor of his State Street Chicago store (yes, the one with the Clock) with toys. A bunch of Little People were dressed up as elves and put to work using Tinks to build Big Things in Field’s display windows. There were Ferris wheels and other giant constructions and crowds of kids – and parents – gaping, then rushing to the elevators to the fourth floor. More than a million Tink sets were sold before Christmas 1915.

There are specific colors for the different lengths of the rods, as they’re called, and the spools have holes of specific diameter drilled part way through the sides at 45-degrees with the center hole going completely through. The basis of Pajeau’s 1914 patent stated that the thinking for the sticks and holes was based on the Pythagorean Theorem and that three spools and three rods could produce a 45-45-90 triangle… as well as Ferris Wheels, robots and other more complex stuff.

Hasbro now makes Tinkertoys and they come in classic wooden varieties (with some plastic accessory parts – for making weather vanes and windmills) and now with plastic versions. They continue to inspire children’s creativity, using Tinks to turn ideas into reality.

Written by Dianne Weller