Christmas Toys & Gifts from Yesteryear in Old Newspaper Ads

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to find advertisements for the toys our ancestors wanted for Christmas.

There’s no doubt that Christmas is more exciting when you are young. There’s the anticipation of getting that special toy or two from your Christmas list. The thrill of running from your room to the Christmas tree that morning to see what Santa brought you. My guess is that December was one of the months you looked forward to growing up.

What was your favorite gift as a child? I’m amazed when I look through old newspapers – like those in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives – to see how similar the toys are to ones sold now.

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1930 Toy Store Has Everything

In the vintage holiday newspaper advertisement for the Cullum & Boren Co. below, toys including footballs, magic sets, and dolls are all items you would see on modern-day kids’ lists. Sure, not everything is the same; there are a few items that are specific to that time period, like big bang tractors and keystone toys. What’s interesting is that while today’s retailers appeal to parents’ pocketbooks by claiming low prices, in this advertisement the store boasts of having everything from 25-cent toys to the most “elaborate and expensive on the market.” I guess that’s a 1930s way of saying they have something for everyone.

Christmas toys ad, Dallas Morning News newspaper advertisement 7 December 1930

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 7 December 1930, section: Society, Art, Music, Amusements, Radio, page 3

Toys for “Real Boys”

For those who like their children’s toys educational, this 1919 Christmas advertisement for the A. C. Gilbert Company asserts that “real boys want real toys – not mere playthings…” These toys mimic occupations that would help a boy grow to “useful manhood.” While some of the toys mentioned lean toward the fanciful, like the magic set, others – like the chemistry, soldering and wireless sets – would have had more latter-day applications for young boys. Notice that one of the toys mentioned is a machine gun:

A real machine gun, shooting wooden bullets in clips from an air cooled chamber. Modeled after the famous Browning gun. Swivels around to fire in any direction and at different elevations. Fires ten shots a second but is not dangerous… it will delight any red-blooded boy.

Christmas toys ad, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper advertisement 14 December 1919

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 14 December 1919, page 25

Toy Makers: Disabled British Soldiers

There are always surprises to be found in old newspapers that educate us about the social history of the time. In this Christmas toy advertisement imploring parents to shop now to get toys that will “gladden the hearts of children,” there is also a mention at the bottom of the ad about new toys from England. These children’s toys are made by British soldiers “disabled at the front.” This 1918 advertisement from the Halle Bros. Co. would have served as a poignant reminder to readers that the pain and suffering caused by World War I meant that not everyone was having a merry Christmas. The war ended three days after this newspaper ad was published.

Christmas toys ad, Plain Dealer newspaper advertisement 8 November 1918

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 8 November 1918, page 2

Christmas Shopping Countdown

Are you a last-minute Christmas shopper? Christmas falls on December 25 each year but inevitably the stores are saturated with shoppers picking up those last-minute holiday gifts in the days and hours before the big day. Seems this was true for our ancestors as well. This old advertisement from Herpolsheimer’s, published just two days before Christmas, urges Michigan shoppers to hurry (“shop in the morning if possible”) for their toy trains, doll chests, pop guns, and ice skates.

Christmas toys ad, Grand Rapids Press newspaper advertisement 23 December 1910

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 23 December 1910, page 14

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The Toy Department

One of the common themes of Christmas advertising from generations past is the opening of the toy department. These announcements, including a list of featured toys, can be found in many old newspaper advertisements. This 1914 example encourages adults to bring their children – or even other people’s children – to see the new and complete toy department. Wolf, Wile & Co. were opening their re-stocked toy department on November 30 to give shoppers a start on their Christmas shopping, promising that their “largest and finest assortments of toys we have ever had” make their toy department:

The Land of Toys—the Land of Joys—
The Land of Delight for girls and boys.

Christmas toys ad, Lexington Herald newspaper advertisement 29 November 1914

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 29 November 1914, section 3, page 6

Christmas No Longer as Exciting?

And of course Christmas wish lists aren’t just for the kids. But it would seem that once you become an adult your wish list becomes more “practical.” In this 1906 holiday advertisement from The Emporium, we are provided with ideas for gifts for the “older folks” like dishes, pots & pans, glasses and silverware. This vintage newspaper ad reminds you that you should “Get mother something that she will appreciate and that may be enjoyed by the whole family.”

Christmas gifts ad, Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper advertisement 1 December 1906

Colorado Springs Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado), 1 December 1906, page 6

Yep, that’s just what we mothers like: pots, pans or something the whole family will enjoy (sarcasm fully intended). What’s on your Christmas wish list this year?

Merry Christmas!

Related Christmas Gift Articles & Resources:

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Sleuthing for Clues in the News to Solve Genealogy Mysteries

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows how tiny clues in old newspapers can lead to big family history discoveries.

Every genealogist I have ever met seems to be a combination of Perry Mason, Jessica Fletcher, Columbo, Christine Cagney, Mary Beth Lacey, Thomas Magnum, and Sherlock Holmes—searching everywhere for clues, following each one (no matter how small or seemingly insignificant), and putting together the strongest case they can.

illustration of Sherlock Holmes in “The Five Orange Pips”

Illustration: Sherlock Holmes in “The Five Orange Pips.” Source: Wikimedia.org.

One of my favorite places to hunt for clues in my genealogy and family history is the online collection of GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. There always seems to be some new discovery for me to delve into in order to make our family tree more complete.

Sleuthing for Clues in the News

Sometimes these genealogical clues are truly tiny—but when pursued, can lead to valuable information and additions to our family trees. Such was the case when I came across a small, three-sentence article in an 1897 newspaper.

article about Mary Lisy, Plain Dealer newspaper article 16 May 1897

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 16 May 1897, page 13

Having already identified that I had a couple in our family tree of Joseph and Mary Lisy, I decided this was worth investigating further. It certainly seemed to have all the elements of a highly interesting genealogy story. So my work began.

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Investigating Joseph & Mary Lisy

In another Ohio newspaper the very next day was an even shorter article, this one containing only one sentence.

article about Mary Lisy, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 17 May 1897

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 17 May 1897, page 6

Now I had some nice pieces of information to further my ancestry research. First I learned that the court that heard this case was the Probate Court, and, second, that this Mary Lisy was a patient in a facility named Cleveland State Hospital.
I began to look for Mary Lisy in the Census records of the time and sure enough, in the 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 United States Census records is listed “Lisy, Mary, Inmate” at the Cleveland State Hospital for the Insane. I then continued to look in GenealogyBank’s newspapers to see if there might be something I could learn about the institution itself.

My initial archive search returned hundreds and hundreds of search results. Many, like this 1909 newspaper article, detail terrible conditions and chronic overcrowding in the Cleveland State Hospital.

Asylum Cramped, Governor Finds, Plain Dealer newspaper article 9 August 1909

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 August 1909, page 1

Then in the 1940 United States Census returns I discovered Mary Lisy, who—while still listed as an “inmate”—was now at Hawthornden State Hospital (Insane) and had been at this facility at least since 1935. While I was not familiar with this facility from any of my prior research, it didn’t take me long to find this 1941 newspaper article, which contains a lot of good information on the system of insane asylums in Ohio, including Hawthornden.

Ohio Insane Asylums Slated for Repairs, Repository newspaper article 10 January 1941

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 10 January 1941, page 12

Genealogy Sleuthing Stumbling Block

Then I had one of those “uh-oh, I knew this was going too smoothly” moments in my genealogy research. As I continued researching Joseph and Mary Lisy, I discovered that there were at least two men in Cleveland named Joseph Lisy who had almost identical birth years. Both also happened to have married women with the given name of Mary, who also had similar birth years. To make this matter even more confusing, all these folks were Bohemian as well.

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One of the couples seemed to have had a fairly “normal” life, but the other couple had a darker life together—including this Mary having been in an asylum for decades, as shown in this 1901 newspaper article. This article detailed a court case in which Joseph Lisy was found guilty of failing to provide for his four minor children and was sentenced to the workhouse.

article about Joseph Lisy, Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 February 1901

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 February 1901, page 12

This complication of multiple Joseph and Mary Lisy couples was a great learning experience for me and a good example of the need to get as much definitive documentation as we can find to ensure that our family trees are true and accurate.

Expanding My Genealogy Search

I branched out my research to include records from Cuyahoga County, the Ohio Probate Court, the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services, several local genealogical and history organizations, the diocese of Cleveland, several cemeteries, and, much to my luck, a cousin who was also struggling with this same dilemma. As they say “two heads are better than one,” and we all know this is certainly at its truest when it comes to genealogy and family history research.

It took some time to sift through all of the death listing for each Mary Lisy that we could find, but that is what we did. As we winnowed them down, one was discovered from 1960 that placed her death at the “Millcreek Psych. Ctr” in Knox County, Ohio. Of all the death listings for women named Mary Lisy, after the 1940 Census, this was the only one with any hint of an institution as the location of her death. It was from 1960, which means Mary had lived in Ohio insane asylums for over 60 years of her life, which was a sobering thought all by itself. Both my cousin and I agreed this was the most promising lead we had, so it was picked to be our first to pursue.

Then almost all at once the genealogy research started falling into place like dominos.

Pieces of the Family Mystery Come Together

Our first break came when a very helpful priest in the diocese provided a copy of the parish register for the marriage of Joseph and Mary, which gave us her maiden name of Bolf (Wolf).

photo of the marriage registry for Joseph Lisy and Mary Bolf

Photo: marriage registry for Joseph Lisy and Mary Bolf

Second, the archivist from the Cuyahoga County Probate Court sent me the files on the insanity hearings for Mary Lisy. Pages and pages of information—then in about the middle, penciled in the margin of one of the records was this: “nee Wolf.”

My cousin called to say that when she was speaking to her husband about this mystery, he mused aloud about why Mary would have been transferred to Hawthornden—which was not in Cuyahoga County, but rather in Summit County, Ohio. She said this didn’t click right away, but then like a bolt of lightning it struck her.

She recalled that the only children of Mary Lisy who were still alive in 1960 had been listed as living in Cuyahoga County, according to the 1940 Census. However, there was a cemetery listing in one obituary for a cemetery in Summit County, Ohio. The obituary for Edward Votypka was in a 1944 newspaper and nicely mentioned the cemetery by name.

obituary for Edward Votypka, Plain Dealer newspaper article 14 March 1944

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 14 March 1944, page 10

It was, as she said “a tenuous connection,” but she placed a call to the cemetery. There a wonderfully helpful staff member was able to verify that a family member had purchased 12 graves for a family plot. Not only were several of the children and other family members of Mary Lisy interred there, but one grave was the final resting place of Mary Lisy herself!

We are now tidying up the rest of our genealogy research on Mary and Joseph Lisy. And to think—this all came about from a three-sentence article in an 1897 newspaper!

What is the best and biggest genealogy and family history discovery you have made from a newspaper article? I’d love to learn about them so please leave your story in the comments here. Thanks for reading and Godspeed in your genealogy sleuthing!

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