Those Wonderful Christmas Toys

I suppose everyone remembers a special Christmas gift or two, and this was one of mine. While not precisely a toy, this Steelman record player served me well for several years. According to a 1950 issue of Billboard, the Steelman Phonograph and Radio Company, based in Mt. Vernon, New York, had begun producing three versions of its portable, luggage-type record changer in that year, including this three-speed version in a leatherette case. My parents splurged a bit; the player was priced at $29.95.

I remember the case, although at the time I paid no attention to the Steelman name inside the cover. In 1950, I was four years old, reading well enough to be following lyrics, and falling in love with my ‘music machine.’

Today, music machines have changed a good bit, but one of my favorites requires neither AC current nor batteries. While there aren’t any lyrics to follow, it hardly matters. The sight of the sound of this ‘toy’ is enough.

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Comments always are welcome.
For more Wintergatan videos, please click here.

63 thoughts on “Those Wonderful Christmas Toys

  1. First of all, that photo is enchanting in every way. I love the look in your eyes! Don’t you wish you still had it?

    The video reminded me of The Musical Museum which we visited when we were in London. It has a large collection of self-playing musical instruments and my favorite was the orchestrion. They didn’t have this one, but they should! The tune of the marbles is beautiful! Plus you get an upper arm work out playing it!

    1. That look in my eyes? Who says I don’t still have it? I’m curious, gullible, and easily enchanted — a perfect recipe creating ‘that look’ from time to time.

      The engineering of this machine fascinates me as much as its music. I have another toy that’s lived in my closet for some years because I can’t quite bring myself to tackle putting it together. I’m going to give it a try over our next rainy days, just because it’s equally cool and deserves to be shared.

    1. The clown wasn’t ceramic. It was a nightlight, and probably plastic. I suspect it was meant to be Bozo the Clown, since I went through a bit of a Bozo phase and had at least a few books that featured his adventures. He was introduced in 1946, the year I was born, and moved to television in 1949, so it makes sense that his image would have been licensed to any number of products.

  2. Oh, that music machine SOOO reminds me of the “Excessive Machine” in the cult classic movie “Barbarella,” which featured a mostly nude Jane Fonda in her first role. (I digress)…

  3. I love the old Christmas pictures. Bravo on reading early. Did your parents teach you? One of my old photos with our gifts, shows me with the typical “girl” things to prepare me to be a mother and housewife, and my brothers with the cool Mr. Machine and a bike. Boy toys were much better and I was glad my brothers would share. In the future I talked my parents into getting me things like a chemistry set.

    1. My parents didn’t exactly teach me to read — at least, not formally. My mother read to me every day from my earliest months of life, and as soon as I could manage to climb up in my dad’s lap, we’d read the newspaper together.

      I got some of those ‘girl things,’ too. My favorite was a little kitchen with tiny cake, pie, and muffin tins and tiny boxed mixes to go with them. On the other hand, it was only a few years ago that I gave my red plastic brick set to a friend for her grandchildren. I loved building with that set.

      1. My parents said I had to wait to learn at school. We did not crack a book open until the second half of first grade. I still remember that day. The first word was “Run”. I had all my kids reading by age 4.

  4. Naturally I had to find out what the second part of Wintergatan means. It turns out that Swedish gata means ‘street’ (synonymous cognate of the archaic English gate in “Strait is the gate.”) Sources say ‘winter street’ is a way of referring to the Milky Way, which apparently is easier to see in Sweden in the winter.

    1. It took a while for me to read the word properly; for some time, I read it as ‘Wintergarten.’ After I realized my mistake, I never took the time to figure out the meaning of gatan, so thanks for adding that.

      If I’d taken the next step and explored Wintergatan, I would have learned this on their Wiki:

      “Wintergatan (“the Milky Way” or, literally “the Winter Street”) is a Swedish folktronica band from Gothenburg. Martin Molin and Marcus Sjöberg were previously part of the former band Detektivbyrån. The band uses a variety of unconventional instruments including the Modulin, a fingerboard-controlled synthesizer built from Doepfer eurorack modules, the Moog Theremini digital theremin, an electric autoharp, a hammered dulcimer, a self-built punch-card music box, a slide projector, a musical saw, and a typewriter for use as percussion.”

      Martin Molin is the person in the video. It’s a long way from ABBA, that’s for sure.

      1. It was that Wikipedia article that got me going, and I’m glad it did, because I might otherwise never have known about the existence of the less-common gate that means ‘way, path,’ and is found in the British place name Highgate. Some years ago I discovered the second blow, which means ‘grow,’ and just a few minutes ago the second lurch. The common lurch is ‘an abrupt movement,’ while the one in the phrase “left in the lurch” means ‘the losing position of a cribbage player who has not passed the halfway mark at the end of the game.’

        Speaking of ABBA, which Martin Molin is indeed a long way from, a week or two ago we caught a documentary about the group on PBS. Of course we’d known their songs, but nothing about the four people in the group, including that they were two married couples.

    1. I came ‘this close’ to adding that song to the post, and then decided it didn’t quite fit. Besides, I was sure someone would remember it and link to it — and you did. Thanks!

    2. Thanks for the link to ‘The Marvellous Toy’, Derek. I remember it from when I was in the first years of primary school, when I did schooling via Correspondence School. It was so good to listen to that song again.

  5. I had one of those record players in a suitcase thingies myself, and a yellow plastic 45 of “Happy Trails To You” by Roy and Dale that I played the grooves off of. I also had a set of “Children’s Songs” 78’s that had some of the strangest, most off-the-wall songs on it. I still remember the lyrics to a couple of them. I couldn’t have been more than three or four at the time. I did find one: but she’s using a different tune than my record did, as well as some different and additional lyrics.

    1. I certainly remember those red and yellow records. Some of them came with a book of stories, but I can’t remember what they were. I’d never heard “The Walloping Window Blind,” but I loved it. It put me in mind of Lewis Carroll, and when I found the biography of the author, Charles Edward Carryl,, it mentioned the similarity. It makes for a great song, that’s for sure.

  6. I love the marble music machine! I remember my first record player. I was 5 years old, and my first record was Bambi. I also liked to listen to my brother’s Herman’s Hermits and Chad and Jeremy records.

    1. Chad and Jeremy’s “Summer Song” came out the year I graduated from high school, and every time I hear it I remember those sweet summer months before leaving for college. Chad Stuart died of pneumonia on December 20th in Hailey, Idaho, after being admitted to the hospital because of a fall. It was a bit of a shock to read that he was 79; then I remembered that I’m of the same generation!

  7. I’d call that a definite splurge – – in today’s $ dollars, $323.46!
    I cannot express how much I love this Marble Machine!!!! Hard to believe it actually exists, outside of a storybook. So glad you posted this at this time of the year, what a reminder that despite all the crazy bad things that happen sometimes, some crazy great things are always happening, too!

    1. I showed this to my dad, who said his older sister had something similar in the 60’s. They played “Snoopy vs the Red Baron” and “The Age of Aquarius.” The record players at school were similar, but the lid detached, and had the speaker built into one end. And then the gym teacher would somehow plug it into the wall speakers, used for announcements, and made the kids do square dancing (boys had to dance with girls!) to “As We Go Marching Through Georgia” which I’m guessing, the gym teachers did NOT play, south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

      1. Ah, yes. Those dance classes. It was sixth grade for us, and we had square dancing, too. One of the tunes I remember is “Turkey in the Straw” — quite appropriate for Iowa, since wild turkeys were as abundant as pheasants. On the other hand, the songs I best remember from those sessions were those like Bill Haley and his Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.” A lot of kids don’t realize that grandma and grandpa were rocking to rock’n’roll even in the 1950s.

    2. It’s even more interesting than I originally realized. Here’s what I found and posted in my comment to Steve:

      “If I’d taken the next step and explored Wintergatan, I would have learned this on their Wiki:

      “Wintergatan (“the Milky Way” or, literally “the Winter Street”) is a Swedish folktronica band from Gothenburg. Martin Molin and Marcus Sjöberg were previously part of the former band Detektivbyrån. The band uses a variety of unconventional instruments including the Modulin, a fingerboard-controlled synthesizer built from Doepfer eurorack modules, the Moog Theremini digital theremin, an electric autoharp, a hammered dulcimer, a self-built punch-card music box, a slide projector, a musical saw, and a typewriter for use as percussion.”

      There’s a piece here that shows the second generation machine. It’s all just amazing.

      1. I remember seeing Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter,” which is a fun little piece, but this Swedish band is incredibly creative, what a fun and imaginative bunch!! I’m just in awe. When I was a kid, I visited a museum of mechanical musical machines (that’s a lot of M’s!) and kept wanting to get in there with a screwdriver and see how they all operated.

  8. I had a record player like that. I couldn’t read yet, but I knew which record was which – I played them all the time.

    How does anyone come up with something like the marble machine?

    1. It’s hard to realize what a change it was when those record players (and televisions!) came into our lives. When this photo was taken, I’m sure we didn’t yet have our tv, so it was even more special to have this record player. It would play 78s, as well; I can remember some Elvis Presley 78s in my collection. Too bad I don’t still have them, given the prices they go for at auction.

      The marble machine’s great, isn’t it? The combination of engineering and musical creativity is amazing.

  9. Love the photo and the memories. I got a similar gift at around 4 or 5, along with some records. Some were stories, the equivalent of a modern audiobook for kids, but the one I remember most was Peter and the Wolf. I loved to listen to it with my father and he’d describe the different instruments in the orchestra to me as we went along. He had been an oboe player (what would crossword puzzles do without “oboe?”) and I ended up playing the bassoon. I loved the bassoon from Peter and the Wolf.

    And it’s a good thing you’re among friends here, Linda. If I said I’d been through “a bit of a Bozo phase” to the guys I play golf with I’d suffer for at least the next 9 holes. They would make sure I knew that I wasn’t through it yet.

    1. The bassoon and oboe are two of my favorite instruments. I chose clarinet myself; all three instruments seem especially good for musical story-telling. I had some storybook and record combinations myself, but I don’t remember their content. What I do remember is that the records were red and yellow. I didn’t realize how common they were until I glanced at eBay just now. Even 78s came in colors — including blue.

      ‘Bozo’ has developed some unfortunate modern connotations, but here’s a thought that made me laugh. Given recent events, and if I could avoid other connotations involving Debbie and Dallas, it might be fun to write a piece titled, “Bozo does Bandera, and Boerne, and Bulverde…” I was tempted toward a side trip to Bigfoot, but decided to put that off until next time.

      1. I started out on clarinet (my mother played alto clarinet) and moved to bassoon early on, I think in 7th grade. I was a decent clarinetist, usually 2nd chair, and when they recruited someone to play bassoon they chose me, much to the chagrin of the 1st clarinetist who wanted to play bassoon himself. They explained to him that he was too good on clarinet to lose to the bassoon – I guess sometimes it pays to be 2nd best.

        I wish I had those old 78s of mine and the collection of symphonies my father had. I can still remember the heavy boxed sets they came in. I’d forgotten about the colored records, but I remember now that you remind me.

        And your “Bozo does Bandera et al.” would be interesting. I expect you’d get a lot of random, disappointed hits late at night.

  10. That’s a very sweet photo. What were the first things you played on it?

    I’d wanted a record player but had to make do with the ‘record player’ inside a big doll! I used to take the backs of all my dolls (apart from one whose back was unopenable) and take out the music-making bits. Nothing was safe from me!

    My first record was the dreadful ‘Alvin’s Harmonica’ that I think I had played to me on my older sister’s record player. I loved it. I can barely listen to it now!

    1. Honestly, Val, I don’t remember my first records. Obviously I received a few when I received the record player, but the music is lost in the mist of time.

      It’s interesting to track the development of technology through people’s memories. I never had a doll that cried, spoke, or made any other sort of sound. Those came along well after I was done with dolls. Of course, I remember four digit phone numbers, operators who asked, “Number, please?” and telephones without even a dial, so there’s that.

      Those Chipmunks were the worst. I realized some years ago that their Christmas song never seems to be included in the rotation of recorded music played in stores. I suspect there’s a reason!

      1. I think there’s just a five year difference in age between us, Linda. Maybe the dolls with the voiceboxes inside came from Europe and didn’t get to the USA in your early childhood? I’m pretty sure one of the ones I had had belonged to my sister who is older than you.

        I’m so glad the Chipmunks didn’t follow us through the decades!

    1. It’s so good to see you, Vicki. I hope your holiday season was a good one, and that you’re feeling better. When I posted this, I didn’t realize that the fellow playing the machine is part of a Swedish band named Wintergatan. They’re certainly creative, on a number of levels.

  11. Incredible invention!

    Best I could do with marbles is the game with a circle in the dirt trying to knock the other kid’s marble out. Boy, do I feel inadequate …

    Merry Christmas!

    1. One of my favorite family photos includes two of my mother’s older cousins playing marbles in the dirt in front of a Saskatchewan shack (which probably was a home, and not a ‘shack’ at all). I played jacks rather than marbles, but both games are portable, don’t need batteries, and require only a minimal investment in equipment. At least the marble machine doesn’t require batteries, either!

    1. Your music box analogy’s spot on. I have a little cigarette box that my parents owned with a tiny rotating cylinder that plays a tune when you open the box. Perhaps the fellow who built the marble machine saw something similar, and took the leap.

  12. You’re a darling little girl and I just love the look on your face, so engrossed and interested! What a sweet memory. My family also had a similar record player. I hadn’t thought about that in years!

    1. My dad was devoted to nurturing my curiosity, and both he and my mother did their best to ensure that I’d stay engrossed and interested — in books, in music, and in the world in general. Thank goodness they were willing to support sandboxes and mud pies, too!

      It’s amazing how many memories a single object can evoke. This record player’s one example, but there are so many others — some of which I still have, like my mother’s favorite casserole dish.

  13. A great photo and I too had one of those battery operated record players but mine was bought at around 1965 in Finland. Helvi and I used to listen to Finnish folk music records while on board our boat taking us to Australia.
    We had it for a number of years after which I build a much bigger set with large 12inch speakers and plenty of base, that one could feel the vibrations.
    But, the small one, coming home one day, it was gone. A thief had climbed through the window and it was stolen.

    1. The record player in the photo was AC powered, rather than batteries. Batteries were around at the time, of course, but I don’t remember anything except a battery flashlight. Even transistors hadn’t made the popular market by the time I received the record player. Bell Labs unveiled their transistor on June 30, 1948, although it was used primarily in military applications for a few years. Eventually, the Japanese snapped to, and Sony emerged, along with transistor radios. Even in the 1950s, we’d trot down to the hardware store to test tubes from the television when it stopped working. Amazing.

      That was a bold thief, to climb through the window. I still remember the morning I found many of my plumeria plants gone. Sometimes, I just shake my head. One of our town’s most memorable thefts took place the night after a new homeowner had his lawn sodded. Someone rolled up with a truck, peeled off the sod, and disappeared into the night. The next morning, only the dirt remained.

  14. Lovely memory. Reminds me of my little record player that I had when I was 4. I had a record called the little tune that ran away. The tune of rock-a-bye baby was taken up by different farm animals, a cowboy, and even a train as it ran away. I drove my mother nuts playing it over and over.

    1. I had to listen to that little tune twice, just to catch all the details. It’s quite wonderful — no wonder you played it over and over. I must say, it’s far better than that “Baby Shark” that was all the rage for a while. Any time a children’s song makes its way even into my mental playlist, it has to be popular!

    1. My dad was quite a music buff — jazz, big band, and Dixieland primarily — and I’m sure he wanted to get me started early. When we got our first stereo, he was as excited as I was. Maybe more. In any event, we had a lot of fun trips to the record store, and a lot of fun evenings listening to new music. We had a lot of fun at family nights at the Masonic Lodge, too, swing dancing to live bands.

  15. How I love reading stories from your childhood!! My mom always insisted in tinsel dangling from our Christmas trees, too, and to this day, I can’t stand it — nor can my sister. It’s just too messy. Anyway, I’m glad your record player served you well for so long. And those marble machine things? Domer and I could watch them for ages!!

    1. I heard a great story this year: that tinsel actually evolved from myths about a spider that somehow saved the Holy Family by web-spinning. I haven’t tracked it down yet, but it’s neat to think that tinsel has a history, too. The old tinsel was shinier than what they sell today, and it certainly lasted a lot longer.

      Isn’t the marble machine fun? The music’s surprisingly appealing, but I’m completely in awe of the fellow who was able to engineer it.

  16. Weren’t you the little cutie! Still are, I bet, as well as still having that “look”. Although not the same model, I also had a little record player like that but a few years later.

    That machine reminds me of this series of videos on YT.

    1. I don’t know about cute, but I know that I still get that ‘look’ from time to time. I have a couple of friends who’ve pointed it out to me, always with a laugh.

      I’ve never come across Animusic; it’s a great pairing with the marble machine — analog and digital. I had to look it up. Like some of the commenters on the video, I thought it was mechanical at first, but it’s no less cool for being animated. So many commenters remembered it from grade school — I can only imagine what they’d think of our record players.

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