How Pressman Toy Shaped the Gaming Industry

Pressman Toy is the rare toy brand that can claim it has made toys for every generation from the pre-recession Greatest Generation to baby boomers, millennials, and Gen Z, and still sells them today.

Founded in 1922, the company is known for selling classic board games such as checkers, Chinese checkers, chess and backgammon in its signature bright red boxes. Pressman sells toys 20 years before Hasbro
(1942), 23 years before Mattel
(1945) and LEGO (1932) the first 10 years.

In its 100-year history, it has seen toys change from simple wooden and cardboard locally made toys to plastic and electronic ones made overseas. It has also seen toy marketing evolve from newspaper advertising to radio, TV advertising, and today YouTube and social media.

Pressman Toy was one of the first toy companies to sell licensed toys, introducing the Orphan Annie Bubble Tube in 1937, and its toy line featured the 1938 Disney hit Snow White. It was an early adopter in the switch to plastic, purchasing an injection molding machine in 1947. It soon forayed into TV advertising, when children’s TV became a key way to drive sales in the 1960s.

Founder Jack Pressman’s son and former Pressman Toy chairman Jim Pressman and his wife Donna with author Alan Axelrod Axelrod has co-authored a new book that recounts this history. This 232-page book, A Century of American Toys and Games, The Pressman Toy Story, is a coffee-table-sized book filled with vintage photos, old ads, and stories about the marketing strategies of the company’s founder and his wife, Lynn Pressman.

“The story speaks for itself,” Jim Pressman said of the book.

As the toy brand’s 100th anniversary approaches, Jim and Donna Pressman decide to write the company’s history. They began digging through old Pressman catalogs and archives, and scoured decades of photos and documents at the Strong Toy Museum in Rochester, New York, deciding there was enough material there for a book.

Jim Pressman, 73, who appeared as a three-year-old model in a 1952 company ad, started working at Pressman Toy in 1971 and became president in 1977, said he found learns something about his family’s toy heritage that he didn’t tt know before.

“We started looking for all the ads from 1923 and a picture of my dad holding a Zellophone in his first office,” Pressman said. “We didn’t know it was one of his first products and his entire business was built on it.”

Jack Pressman started his toy company after working in his father’s grocery store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The store sells candy and all kinds of odds and ends, including toys. Through the store, Jack Pressman met the toy supplier. After serving in World War I, he became a toy salesman for a toy manufacturer in Brooklyn, and in 1922 he joined a wholesale toy company as a partner, which was renamed J. Pressman & company.

One of the first toys from the new company to attract attention was the Zellophone, a wooden xylophone that sold for less than $1.

In 1935, Jack Pressman came across a German pinball game that he helped become a classic, Chinese Checkers, one of the company’s first hits. Pressman bet the game would become a national craze, and he was right,

The book notes that in 1938 Plaything magazine reported that 15 million Chinese checkers games were sold between 1935 and 1938, using approximately 1 billion marbles. Pressman Toy wasn’t the only toy company selling the game, but it “had a first-mover advantage and capitalized on it,” according to the book.

The company also benefited from Jack Pressman’s investment in a toy marble company before the boom began.

The book is organized chronologically and groups the company’s innovations and hit toys by decades.

It tells the stories behind Pressman’s bestsellers, from the Let’s Go Fishin’ toy, which was born in the 1930s and still sells millions of dollars a year, to the 1990s hit Gooey Louie, and the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire license World of the game, which was the best-selling board game 2000 at the time.

Jim Pressman sold Pressman Toy to the Goliath Group in 2014. Goliath Group continues to sell toys under the Pressman Toy brand.

Pressman Toy was also an innovator in the toy world thanks to the role of Lynn Pressman, who became one of the first female executives at a toy company after the death of Jack Pressman in 1959. Lynn worked with Jack even before his death, leading the company’s marketing efforts.

Lynn is known for the Barnum-esque publicity stunts she describes in her book, such as bringing a baby elephant to a toy fair in 1960 to promote a new memory game.

A photo of the stunt appears on page 105 of the book, and Jim Pressman says his memory of the event helped shape the book. He knew there was a picture of his mother Lynn and the elephant at a toy fair somewhere, but he didn’t know if he could find it. He discovered that the Strong Museum had archives of every issue of the trade magazine Playthings, including a story and a photo of an elephant stunt.

When he found the pictures there, he said, “I knew we had a book.” The end result was a book perfect for fans of history, America, toys, and the toy industry.

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