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Auburn Rubber Toys
Written by Tom Hoepf   

When the tire market went flat, Auburn Rubber made toys

Amid the economic hardship of the Great Depression, one company would struggle and fail while another in the same community would overcome adversity and grow. One such place of feast or famine was Auburn in northeast Indiana. Auburn Automobile Co., a manufacturer of expensive luxury cars, exemplifies the former; toymaker Auburn Rubber Co., the latter.

Auburn Rubber Co. likely would have suffered the same fate as its neighboring automaker had management not filled a niche in the toy market. The company was founded in 1913 as the Double Fabric Tire Corp. It reorganized as Auburn Rubber Co. in the 1920s. When the sale of automotive tires and inner tubes went flat after the stock market crash of 1929, the company made industrial rubber parts.

The stroke of genius, or luck, happened when principal stockholder A.L. Murray, brought back a lead soldier from England. It occurred to him that toy soldiers could be made of rubber. Edward McCandlish, a freelance artist, designed and decorated samples of the rubber soldiers, which were accepted enthusiastically by toy buyers. Auburn Rubber began toy production in 1935 with a squad of five soldiers.

Local historian John Martin Smith in The History of DeKalb County Indiana writes: “The first soldiers were molded in 24-inch rubber presses, each of which contained 40-60 soldiers. The soldiers were then trimmed, dipped into a base color lacquer, and then sent down a conveyer where as many as 24 women using camelhair brushes painted on the detail of faces, shoes, belts, buttons, medals and eyes. When dry, each soldier was wrapped in wax paper and packed three dozen to a carton.”

Auburn Rubber’s first toy automobile was, fittingly, the 1936 Cord, which was made locally by the Auburn Automobile Co. The new Cord automobile was highly acclaimed for its innovative engineering and visually striking styling, but doomed by production delays, mechanical bugs and a shrinking luxury car market. Ironically, the Cord was the last car Auburn Automobile Co. would make. Auburn Automobile Co. filed for bankruptcy in December 1937, ending auto production there.

Meanwhile prospects were looking up at Auburn Rubber Co., whose affordable toys were a hit with cash-strapped parents. “They were sold in five-and-dimes beginning just after the depths of the Depression and were an opportunity for parents to buy a cheap toy. … Rubber toys were much cheaper then anything made of metal, obviously,” said Creager Smith, whose aforementioned father got him started in collecting Auburn Rubber toys at an early age.

“My initial collection was with cars and trucks, but when I learned more about Auburn Rubber and saw how many things they made, I started picking up everything. I have everything from the early soldiers and cars to all the farm sets, animals, trains and fire trucks,” said Smith, a historic preservation planner for the City of Fort Wayne, Ind.

The cool, dry basement of Smith’s home is an agreeable climate for his collection of rubber toys from his hometown. “They are very fragile. If you don’t store them under good conditions, bad things will happen,” he said, noting the sagging roofline of a late 1940s Buick. “I’ve had that toy for many years and it was not in good shape when I got it. I’ve taken fairly good care of it … and it’s gotten worse. It just warps, and this particular one has gotten brittle.”

Smith believes the company experienced quality problems when toy production resumed after World War II. “I’ve noticed over the years particular toys may be more susceptible to damage more than others. … They were not necessarily bad when they were made, but then they didn’t age well.”

In addition to affordability, manufacturers of rubber toys described their products as unbreakable, safe and sanitary. Auburn Rubber toys having white rubber tires left no unsightly marks on floors.

Auburn Rubber’s toy soldier ranks grew to include baseball and football teams, but otherwise few civilian figures. Their toy soldiers soon grew from lightweight copies of British lead soldiers to look more like stocky American dime store soldiers. The number of soldiers soon increased to include officers on horseback, machine gunners, flag bearers, anti-aircraft gunners, signalmen, stretcher bearers and wounded soldiers. Army vehicles included motorcycles and tanks.

One of Smith’s rare finds was a boxed Army Tank Training set, which included tanks, troops and a truss bridge. “I paid about $120 to $130 for it 12 to 15 years ago at a toy show. It’s the only one I’ve ever seen,” said Smith.

Like most Auburn Rubber soldiers, the 1930s Army tanks ordinarily have a khaki base coat and occasionally a second color that was applied by hand. However, Smith has found one Auburn Rubber tank with a multicolor paint scheme. “I’ve never seen another one that’s camouflaged. I’m confident that it’s original because I have compared it to other Auburn pieces and the colors all match,” he said.

“Since I grew up in Auburn and a lot of my stuff came from the Auburn area, I have a lot of pieces … from former employees or friends of former employees. I have oddball stuff that was made maybe at the end of the day or for somebody in particular and it went home in a lunchbox,” said Smith.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. marketed Auburn Rubber toys under its Happy Time brand. Auburn Rubber produced a farm set pictured in the 1947 Sears Christmas catalog that included a cardboard barn, farmhouse and several outbuildings and a rubber tractor, spreader and numerous animals—all for $2.98. A 15-piece farm play set cost $1.98. “I think the box folded into a shed,” said Smith. A 16-piece assortment of extra farm animals cost 89 cents.

Auburn Rubber produced toy farm tractors in several sizes including large models approximating 1/16th scale. Hitches and the heads of the drivers are often missing from these rubber toys.

Aircraft included small fighter planes and bombers of World War II vintage, which were sometimes sold as sets, and a swept-wing jet fighter from the late 1940s or early ’50s. Airport sets included terminals and hangars made of heavy cardboard. Small warships, freighters and a scarce submarine comprised Auburn Rubbers’ fleet. Auburn Rubber also made construction and fire-fighting sets.

With the popularity of cowboys and Indians, Auburn Rubber even made six-shooters and rubber knives.

The company’s realistic looking building blocks, which resembled oversize LEGO blocks, were usually marketed by Sears under the retailers’ Happy Time brand, but Smith has one such set in Auburn Rubber Co. packaging. The instruction booklet has a 1938 copyright. “The neat thing was they were tinted to look like bricks and limestone,” said Smith. The box top has a dramatic illustration of a model skyscraper, which obviously required more blocks to build than a single set contained.

In addition to Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, Plymouths and Fords, Auburn Rubber produced many Indianapolis 500-style race cars, some as large as 10½ inches long. The driver molded behind the wheel typically was hand-decorated.

“Generally anytime there was a person or a face—soldiers, farmers on tractors, the drivers in the racers—those details were done by hand,” said Smith. “On some toys, particularly later on the cars and trucks, they had a screen process the set over the toy and used a spray gun to apply extra color.”

Changing technology prompted Auburn Rubber to begin utilizing vinyl around 1954. “There was a transitional period, but definitely by 1956 and ’57 they were making a lot of vinyl toys,” said Smith.

In 1960 the owners sold Auburn Rubber Co. to the town of Deming, N.M., leaving more than 200 workers jobless. The company operated in New Mexico for several more years before going bankrupt.

The former Auburn Rubber Co. plant on West Eleventh Street was soon purchased by Cooper Tire and Rubber Co., which continues operations in Auburn to this day.

Auburn Rubber outlasted the competition

A misconception persists that every rubber toy is a product of Auburn Rubber Co. True, Auburn Rubber was the most prolific manufacturer of rubber toys, but it faced tough competition from companies that manufactured similar goods. While one such company, Firestone, was a household name, others remained obscure.

Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. of Akron, Ohio, produced rubber toy cars in the 1930s as promotional tools. Many were produced at Firestone’s exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York as well as for the Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland in 1936 and 1938. “I believe it was strictly promotional … that the fairs and expositions were the only marketing channel,” said Smith.

F.A. Seiberling founded Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio in 1898. After being forced out at Goodyear, he founded Seiberling Tire and Rubber Co. in Akron in 1921. The company made rubber toys including vehicles into the 1950s.

Rainbow Rubber Co. of Butler, Pa., produced rubber toy vehicles that had fine detail, down to the molded “artillery-style” rubber wheels. “Rainbow was probably the one that made the best quality, even more than Auburn,” said Smith. “There is confusion because they often marked the cars with what appears to be “AUBRTOY” but it is actually “RUBRTOY.” Another feature of Rainbow Rubber’s vehicles are the ends of axles, which are shaped to resemble hubcaps.

Sun Rubber Co. of Barberton, Ohio, started making toy cars and trucks in 1935. “Early on I wasn’t crazy about Sun Rubber pieces because they were all fairly stylized and I liked more authentic-looking cars and trucks,” said Smith.

Barr Rubber Co. of Sandusky, Ohio, which also produced toy cars and trucks in 1935, depicted the famous Ford V-8s in various forms: a coupe, two-door sedan, panel truck and stake truck. By painting the panel truck white and adding a red cross on the side, it became an ambulance. The stake truck was transformed into an Army truck by covering the back with a strip of canvas.

Garrett Sales Corp. of Garrett, Ind., founded by a former Auburn Rubber employee, made rubber toys in the 1970s. Although they are not made from Auburn molds, the production techniques were similar. Smith said the Garrett toy that causes the most confusion is a car that resembles a 1930s Auburn made by Auburn Automobile Co. Smith said that the weight of the Garrett toys is the giveaway. “They’re really heavy and clunky compared to what Auburn Rubber made,” said Smith. The Garrett toys were marked with a “GF” logo, which may have stood for Garrett Flexible, and “Made in USA.”

Creager Smith’s Auburn collection can be viewed at the National Automotive and Truck Museum of the United States Inc., in Auburn, Ind. The museum’s Web site is www.natmus.org. Phone: 260-925-9100.