Rag dolls and jumping-jack toys were popular toys at the turn of the 20th century. Contributed / Haley Pal

Many of you who read this column are also followers of the Windham Historical Society’s Facebook page and are familiar with young housemaid Lena Megquier from South Windham. Through her diary entries, we have come to learn a bit more about life at the end of the 19th century.

Lena’s diaries may be coming to an end, but with the help of followers and Historical Society members, more of Lena’s story has emerged. She married shop owner Caleb Smith of Gorham in 1903 when she was 24 years old. She had her first child, Nelson, in 1904. Her second son, Orland, came along in 1905. In 1907, her daughter Eunice was born and her son Hubert came into the world in 1911.

It got me wondering what kind of toys Lena and Caleb may have given their children in the early 20th century.

Little Nelson was probably presented with a teddy bear on his first Christmas. These adorable toys became popular in 1902 after President Theodore Roosevelt on a bear-hunting trip proved himself to be the ultimate sportsman. He had been out hunting in the Mississippi woods with then-Gov. Andrew H. Longino. The day had been a disappointment with not a bear in sight. Wanting to please the president, his assistants, led by former slave and Confederate cavalryman Holt Collier, managed to corner and tie a black bear to a tree. They then called for the president so he could shoot the animal, but Roosevelt thought this lacked any sportsmanship whatsoever and refused to shoot the bear.

News of that hunting outing quickly swept the nation and in the Nov. 16 issue of the Washington Post,” cartoonist Clifford Berryman submitted a lighthearted depiction of the event and it was published. The cartoon was seen by a Brooklyn, New York, candy shop owner named Morris Michton. He and his wife Rose also made stuffed animals at their shop. They decided to create a toy bear dedicated to the “Big Game Hunter” president who wouldn’t shoot a helpless bear, and they named it the Teddy Bear. Once Michton received permission from Roosevelt to use his name, the bears took off like a rocket. Sales were so successful, Michton started the Ideal Toy Company and the little bears were mass-produced for children across the country. That sweet toy was probably a favorite of Nelson’s and may have been passed down to his younger siblings as well.

Eunice may have been given a toy doll of her very own, probably stitched lovingly by Lena herself using old fabric and scraps from around the house with a sweet hand-painted face that would give the girl comfort when she needed it. It would also teach tiny Eunice how to nurture something she loved. This was probably her favorite toy.


Haley Pal, a Windham resident and active member of the Windham Historical Society, can be contacted at [email protected]

As the children got a little older, Caleb may have gotten the family a Lionel Train set. The Lionel Manufacturing Company was founded by Joshua Lionel Cowen in 1900 in New York City. The first train, the Electric Express, made its appearance in 1901 and was originally designed as a toy store display. Consumers were so taken by the miniature trains, it was decided to put them into mass production. Now families could enjoy them in their own homes. Lena always liked a nice train ride, so she probably had fun with the toy train along with the children.

Other toys the Smith family children may have received include wooden toys, either made by Caleb or purchased in the mercantile he owned in the Great Falls section of Gorham. There may have been a jumping jack toy for Eunice, a pull toy for Orland or a colorful wooden jigsaw puzzle for young Nelson. Little Hubert may have been fascinated watching tin toys in action or watching a jack-in-the box popping up to his surprise.

I guess we’ll never really know the kinds of toys her children liked to play with, but one thing is for sure. Lena and Caleb would have picked their treasures carefully and they would have been given in the spirit of Christmas with a big dose of love.

Note: Lena had one more child also named Lena in 1913. Sadly, due to postpartum complications, Lena passed away shortly after the baby was born. She didn’t live to see the child’s first Christmas. The little girl was later adopted by Lena’s sister who raised her as her own.

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