Gong Bell Mfg. catalog coverYou may have already read about a nifty phone that I picked up while on vacation in Reno (its identity is still a closely-guarded secret), but that wasn’t the only phone that followed me home. I also got an interesting toy phone/bank combo made by The Gong Bell Manufacturing Company of East Hampton, Connecticut. I’ve recently begun the study of toy phones and the companies that made them, and one of the most important of those companies was definitely The Gong Bell Manufacturing Company. Gong Bell was founded in 1866 as a manufacturer of door bells, with toys being added to the lineup in 1872. Toys, made of cast iron, wood or stamped steel, eventually became their primary product. The company was probably associated with, and possibly a subsidiary of, the N.N. Hill Brass Company. Among the numerous phone models produced by Gong Bell were the Speedphone, Dial Phone, Dial Pla Phone, Wall Phone, Ranch Phone, Pla Phone, Pla Pay Phone, TV Pay Phone, Jumbo Pay Phone, Country Phone, Pay Bank Phone, Voice Phone, Unitphone, Duchess Phone, Electric Dial Hand Phone, Future Phone, and the Disney-themed “mousekaphone”. Whew!1937 Gong Bell Advertisement While they didn’t invent them, Gong Bell was almost certainly the first company to make extensive use of bells, gongs and chimes that were actuated mechanically during play, typically ringing with the turning of a wheel. Gong Bell made many types of toys, including hobby horses and other riding, pushing and pulling toys, but phones were always a major part of their production. Toy phones were in fact invented at Gong Bell, by Clifford M. Watrous in 1921. They made good use of an extraordinarily compact ringer, a clever design that was awarded several patents. With this simple technology they were in position to capitalize on the growth of an important household item, the telephone.Dating their products is difficult as they produced certain toys for decades, and pinpointing the introduction of a subtle variation is almost impossible. Gong Bell patent from 1934The company had the peculiar habit of using catalog/model numbers that resembled year designations, but this doesn’t seem to be a worthwhile method of dating, as different years were marketed simultaneously and sometimes even future years appear to have been used. The toy phones, styled to resemble candlesticks, wood phones, 302’s, 354’s, 500’s and princess phones, were a huge success for decades, but after nearly 100 years in the toy business Gong Bell began to struggle. The general belief is that the company folded because of their continued use of wood and metal, their conversion to plastics having come too late. It is generally held that they closed their doors sometime in the 1960’s.
I should say before I go further that the historical information on Gong Bell Manufacturing presented here has been paraphrased from a truly spectacular website, The Antique Toy Archive. Besides histories, the site also features photos and scanned catalogs from the vintage toy makers. The effort that they have put into researching the various toy companies and their obvious dedication to preserving history is to be applauded, and I urge anyone interested in antique toys to pay them a visit.
Bell Gong Mfg. SpeedphoneNow lets look at my new acquisition. This particular phone is also a bank, and not one I’ve been able to find much information on. Gong Bell made many toy phones over the years, several of which were banks, but this one is different than any I’ve seen in their old catalogs. Probably dating from the ’40s or ’50s, it bears the Speedphone logo, a name that Gong Bell Mfg. seems to have applied to several models. Just behind the dial are three distinct slots to accommodate nickels, dimes or quarters, although they all collect into a common area. Probably the most eye-catching aspect of the phone is the color scheme, a strong orange/red accented with blue. While it does have its share of paint chips the finish shows little in the way of oxidation or rust. Fortunately this example didn’t languish away in the backyard, the fate of many such toys. The bottom, also painted metal, slides open to allow the removal (and subsequent gleeful spending) of the fortune contained within. It must be said that the concept of child-proofing could find its origin right here, as the base is sufficiently difficult to open as to repel most any juvenile intrusion.
The combination dial/ringer is a marvel. Considering the sound produced it’s positively tiny, and surely a design that Gong Bell was proud of. Unfortunately the dial on mine turns roughly, tending to hang on occasion. This is undoubtedly something that can be remedied, but it will take a good deal of soul-searching before I have the courage to tear into the riveted assembly. I’m sure someone has gotten into one of these before… I’d sure like to hear from you!