artifacts

Summer Intern Diaries

When I came to The Buffalo History Museum for an internship with the Collections department in the Resource Center, one of my primary tasks consisted of cataloguing a collection of Fisher-Price toys from the 1960s through the 1990s.

The collection is a treasure trove of Fisher-Price at its best: Little People and lap desks, chime balls and a cash register, telescopes and a Toot-Toot steam engine. ???????????????????????????????There’s a rainbow grand piano, a saxophone, and a xylo-drum. The oldest toy is a 1963 “Huffy Puffy Steam Engine” with a cheerful face on the engine and a caboose; the newest toy is the brightly colored saxophone, which chirps peppy notes and dispenses soap bubbles from its bell when played.

Aside from getting to revel in the nostalgia that accompanied cataloguing toys from my childhood, I was also lucky enough to interview one of Fisher-Price’s retired toy engineers. Fred Robjent worked as a Product Development Engineer from 1978 to 2005. After receiving his Associate’s degree in mechanical engineering and his Bachelor’s degree in agricultural mechanization, Mr. Robjent worked at a few smaller companies before joining the Fisher-Price team. Once hired, he went through a rigorous training program. He went on to work as an engineer for the company through its periods of massive growth, its time under Quaker Oats, and finally its purchase by Mattel.

Mr. Robjent helps Walter Mayer, our Director of Collections, with the upkeep and repair of an apostolic clock in the collection. When he heard we were doing a project on Fisher-Price artifacts, he brought a number of his own personal artifacts, vintage catalogs, and limited employee edition books to the Resource Center for me to use in my research. He was happy to shed light on the design process and share his knowledge of the specific artifacts in our collection.

Fisher Price Roller SkatesMr. Robjent personally worked on the iconic Fisher-Price roller skates. He designed and patented a mechanism that made the toy skates safer for preschoolers. If you had a pair of the skates in the early ‘90s, like I did, you might remember the yellow switch on the bottom of the skate that allowed parents to choose from three settings. One stopped the wheels from moving at all, one stopped the skates from rolling backwards, and one allowed uninhibited skating. While Mr. Robjent has eight patents in his name, this was the one that seemed to make him most proud.

Fred Robjent spoke often of the company’s desire to make the toys as safe as possible. Fisher-Price set numerous safety standards in the toy industry that remain in place today. However, when asked what he loved most about working for Fisher-Price, Mr. Robjent said that it was the company’s family atmosphere he loved most.

Samantha Vandermeade
Summer Intern, Collections Department

Spotlight Artifact: Bathing Suits

Now that summer is finally upon us, we decided to share a past article from our Summer 2013 issue of “The Album,” featuring two bathing suits from our collection.


 

Wool Swinsuit, 20-30s

Bathing Suit • “Neptune’s Daughter” • Niagara Knitting Mills Corporation Wool • 1920s-1930s

The swimsuit has a long and varied history. In the early 1900s, women wore long gowns with bloomers underneath. These bathing gowns were weighted down by several heavy layers of material, occasionally with weights sewn into the hem so the material would not float. Fabrics were chosen for bathing suits that would not become transparent when wet. By the 1920s, swimsuits were mostly made out of wool for that very reason. Being so absorbent, swimsuits tended to become heavy and uncomfortable, not to mention itchy in the summer sun. This black wool swimsuit from our collection dates from the 1920s to the 1930s. Labeled “Neptune’s Daughter,” this one-piece swimming suit with attached knickers was made by the Niagara Knitting Mills Corporation of New York, NY.

Bathing Suit Rose Marie Reid of California Acetate 1960s-1970s

Bathing Suit • Rose Marie Reid of California • Acetate • 1960s-1970s

By the 1930s and 40s, bathing suits were rapidly changing. Hemlines were shorter and more bare skin was showing. It was not until the late 40s and early 50s that one-piece bathing suits, or maillots, started to be produced in a variety of fabrics, moving away from wool. For comparison, we have a patterned swimsuit, from the 1960s to the 1970s. This brown, yellow, and black stripped acetate bathing suit, donated by Angela Georgi, was created by Rose Marie Reid of California. Made from a light-weight, stretchy fabric, one would imagine that this would have been much more comfortable to wear to the beach.

Rebecca Justinger
Registrar

Signs from Different Times

Working in the museum’s Collections Department has given me the chance to encounter some very interesting artifacts. The same can be said for my work as the Archivist for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Buffalo. I never thought to contemplate what kinds of similar things exist in both places until the idea was presented to me.  In looking back at everything I have worked on over the years, I realized that  one type of object I had come across quite a few times were signs. It’s a funny thing to think about what a sign can really mean to a place, people, and/ or time in history. When I see a sign on a building, or on the side of a road, I don’t really think deeply about its significance. But when a sign is viewed outside of its original location, or out of context, it almost forces you to think about where it came from and its significance. Some of my most interesting research has been done because of signs.

One of the first signs I worked on at the museum was one made by a member of the American Expeditionary Forces in WWI. For history buffs like myself, researching information about important historical periods, like WWI, is usually something to look forward to because more times than not you come out knowing so much more than you knew before you started. WWI sign

For example, “TO BERLIN”:  I knew before starting my research that it was originally hung in a town in France called Thiaucourt.  What I discovered was that the town was involved in a major battle of the war, the St. Mihiel Offensive, which was led by General John “Black Jack” Pershing in September 1918. This action during the war was particularly significant because it was the first large-scale offensive action that was taken by American forces independent of the Allies. It never ceases to amaze me when I see objects like this sign which have withstood the destructive violence of war and yet find their way to places thousands of miles away. I only wish that we knew more about the man (or men) who made that journey happen.

In a city like Buffalo, there is a lot of history to look back on and reminisce about. There have been a lot of events, neighborhoods, people, and buildings that have made the city what it is. Once in a while those things come back into the spotlight and being able to look at artifacts from the past makes for an interesting comparison to the present. One area of the city that has been in the headlines for many years is the Webster Block.
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 It was a timely thing, then, when I came across two street markers from the corner of Main and Perry Streets ???????????????????????????????during the time the sale to the Sabres was happening. These marble street signs were actually incorporated into the exterior of a building that sat at that corner in 1838. They were chiseled from the sides of the building at an unknown time and eventually donated to the History Museum in 1969. Not having known much about the Webster Block before working on these signs, I was unaware that part of it was located at this intersection and in doing my research, I was even more surprised to find that it had been built up all the way back in 1835 by a prominent figure in Buffalo history, Benjamin Rathbun. Just because of these two signs, I learned some very interesting information about the city I’ve lived in my whole life that I had never even thought to ponder.

It’s amazing what a sign can show you!

Sabine Fisher
Collections Assistant