A classic children’s toy that has continuously been marketed for over 100 years, Tinkertoy construction sets feature spools and rods that were designed with mathematical principles in mind to allow children to build sturdy structures during their constructive play. Each spool has eight holes drilled every 45 degrees around the perimeter with one hole in the middle. With differing lengths, the rods can be inserted into the spools to form 90-degree triangles to fortify the structures the children build. The original wooden rods and spools have been replaced with brightly colored plastic pieces that snap together.1

Tinkertoy construction sets were the brainchild of Charles Pajeau. In the early 1900s he was a stone mason running his father’s monument business. He did not enjoy his work and was often found tinkering with inventions that were unsuccessful. Inspired by observing children play with pencils and empty thread spools to build structures, Charles developed a construction set with similar wooden pieces. By boring holes on the outer edge of the spool as well as in the center, his wooden pieces accommodated building large, three-dimensional structures with infinite possibilities. One of his early advertising slogans stressed the open-ended play his creation offered: “I build a thousand wondrous things that teach both girl and boy; I bring content and happiness; My name is Tinkertoy.”2

On a commuter train from his home in Evanston, Illinois to Chicago in 1913, Charles proposed his idea to Chicago Board of Trade trader, Robert Pettit. Together they started Toy Tinkers Inc., and Charles handcrafted his first construction set in his home. Their first marketing attempt was displaying the toy at the 1914 American Toy Fair in New York City.3 When no one at the Toy Fair was interested in his creation, Charles convinced the manager of two drugstores located in busy parts of New York City to carry his toy in exchange for a large commission on the sales. With window displays that included complex creations made with the spools and rods and nearby electric fans placed to turn the Tinkertoy windmill displays, one location sold fifteen hundred sets in five days.4 At Christmastime, they hired several little people, dressed them in elf costumes, and had them play with Tinkertoys in a display window of a major Chicago department store. This ingenious marketing stunt was highly successful and within a year’s time over a million sets had been sold.5

One of the most distinctive features of Tinkertoy sets was the mailing tube design chosen for the packaging of the product. The early versions of the container included space on the tube for an address label and postage. The containers had several sizes to accommodate the different sets, and distinctive names and numbers indicated their contents. Some sets included an electrical engine, cranks, and pulleys for more elaborate engineering designs. Colorful instruction guides accompanied each Tinkertoy set.6

In addition to their construction sets, the company introduced a number of other playthings made of wood under the name of Tinker Toys that were designed to spark children’s imaginations. A variation of a bowling game was their first departure from their construction sets. Tinkerpins was introduced in 1916.7 By 1919, their line of bead dolls made of wooden beads strung together and painted included Tom Tinker, Belle Tinker, Gym Tinker, Bunny Tinker, Lanky Tinker, Tinker Rabbit, Siren Tinker, and several others.8 Wooden pull toys were also popular, and their simple movements captured children’s attention. The wheeled toys included items, such as Choo Choo Tinker, Pony Tinker, Jockey Tinker, Whirly Tinker, Tinker Dogs, Life Guard Tinker, and many more.9

By the late 1930s the company phased out their line of Tinker Toys and made the decision to concentrate solely on the manufacture of their Tinkertoy construction sets. During WWII, when other toy manufacturers faced restrictions on raw materials due to the war effort, the wooden Tinkertoy construction sets thrived.10 The original natural wooden colors of the rods were replaced with colorful red, green, blue, and yellow wooden sticks in the 1950s.11

The Toy Tinkers’ company was sold several times over the years. Hasbro purchased the rights to Tinkertoy in 1985 and included it in their Playskool division.12 The Tinkertoy remained relatively unchanged for almost 80 years until in 1992 Playskool added production of the construction sets in colorful plastic instead of the traditional wood in honor of its 80th anniversary of the toy. In 1998 Tinkertoy was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in recognition of the toy’s longevity, play value, and creative inspiration for generations of children.13

In 2012 K’NEX teamed up with Hasbro to produce the Tinkertoy, similar to their partnering agreement in 1999 to market the classic Lincoln Logs. Hasbro’s Playskool division receives a royalty for rights to the Tinkertoy name, while the licensing agreement gives K’Nex the right to develop the product. New products designed for preschool children snap together and stay together so children can play with their creations once they build them. K’Nex also introduced an entire cast of buildable pals and pets to encourage role play into their constructive play.14

  • 1. Coopee, Todd. “Tinkertoys.” Toy Tales. < https://toytales.ca/tinker-toys/ > 5 Oct. 2016.
  • 2. Hogan, Patricia. “100 Years of Tinkering.” National Museum of Play. Play Stuff Blog. < http://www.museumofplay.org/blog/play-stuff/2015/02/100-years-of-tinkering/ > 5 Oct. 2016.
  • 3. Tabler, Dave. “How Tinkertoys got started.” Appalachian History. < http://www.appalachianhistory.net/2011/08/how-tinkertoys-got-started.html > 5 Oct. 2016.
  • 4. “Play With A Purpose.” Chicago Historical Society. History Lab. < http://chicagohistory.org/static_media/pdf/historylab/chm-historylabpc01.pdf > 5 Oct. 2016.
  • 5. Op. cit., Tabler.
  • 6. Op. cit., Coopee.
  • 7. “Tinkerpins.” National Museum of Play. Online Collections.< http://www.museumofplay.org/online-collections/3/49/114.6406 > 5 Oct. 2016.
  • 8. “Belle Tinker.” National Museum of Play. Online Collections. < http://www.museumofplay.org/online-collections/1/38/114.6081 > 5 Oct. 2016.
  • 9. “Pony Tinker.” National Museum of Play. Online Collections.< http://www.museumofplay.org/online-collections/1/38/114.5908 > 5 Oct. 2016.
  • 10. “Finding Aid to the Anne H. Lewis Tinker Toy Collection, 1914-2014.” National Museum of Play. < http://www.museumofplay.org/sites/default/files/uploads/Finding%20Aid%20to%20the%20Anne%20H.%20Lewis%20Tinker%20Toy%20collection_091415.pdf > 5 Oct. 2016.
  • 11. Rinker, Harry. “A Short History Of A Classic: Tinkertoys.” The Morning Call. 4 Nov. 1990. < http://articles.mcall.com/1990-11-04/features/2772747_1_toys-child-s-imagination-commerce > 5 Oct. 2016.
  • 12. Pavelich. Julie. “K’Nex expecting reborn Tinkertoy to charm tots, nostalgic parents.” Plastic News.22 Feb. 2012. < http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20120222/NEWS/302229964 > 5 Oct. 2016.
  • 13. “Tinkertoy. Inducted 1998.” National Toy Hall of Fame. < http://www.toyhalloffame.org/toys/Tinkertoy > 5 Oct. 2016.
  • 14. Op. cit., Pavelich.