|By Larry LeMasters
For most of the 20th century, children from across America received Wolverine toys for Christmas or birthday gifts.
Founded by Benjamin Franklin Bain in Pittsburgh, Pa. in 1903, the company’s full name was Wolverine Supply and Manufacturing Company.
Wolverine manufactured its own tools and dies, and it fabricated tools and dies for other toy companies as well. Sand Toy Company of Pittsburgh was one of its earliest customers.
Sand Toy Company’s greatest toy – Sandy Andy – was patented in 1909 and was a miniature, gravity-fed, pulley-run, sand-carrying and dumping cart. It was a huge success, but Sand Toy Company was unable to pay Wolverine for its tool and die work, so Wolverine sued and the Sandy-Andy died and patents were given to Wolverine as part of a bankruptcy settlement by Sand Toy.
Sandy Andy continued to be a success for Wolverine Toys and soon became its signature toy and remained relatively unchanged until the 1950s.
The idea of moving and dumping sand fit into the post-Industrial Revolution philosophy of America where everything, even toys, moved toward instructive and constructive items or playthings. America was building and Americans wanted toys, such as sand carriers, pile drivers and cranes that could build, too.
Wolverine began producing a complete line of sand toys, and by 1919 Wolverine toys were sold in Sears and Roebuck catalogs, assuring Wolverine of its place in the toy market.
Around the same time, Wolverine introduced a line of housekeeping toys at the New York Toy Fair that both parents and children liked for their educational and fun qualities. This new line was made using the same quality construction techniques as Wolverine’s sand toys.
In 1925, Benjamin Bain died, but Wolverine Toys was just taking off.
Complementing its gravity-activated sand toys, Wolverine designed and produced a line of spring-activated toys. In truly innovative fashion, Wolverine also used marbles and ball bearings for toy movement activation. It was during the 1920s that Wolverine also introduced its line of “Sunny Andy” and “Sunny Suzy” toys, which included sand pails, tea sets, glass washboards and miniature grocery stores. The grocery stores came with toy product boxes so children could pretend to bake and cook.
During the 1950s, Wolverine expanded its market with educational toys, teaching children spelling and arithmetic. And, in 1959, Wolverine introduced “Rite Hite” toy kitchens, so girls could cook just like their mothers did.
The Rite-Hite line for little homemakers included Wolverine’s Rite-Hite steel kitchen, Frigidaire range and refrigerator, Kayanee sewing machine, deluxe ironing set, Pink Lady cleaning set, and Little Queen carpet sweeper by Bissel.
The Rite-Hite line was offered in the latest colors so that young girls remained trendy. A 1970s Rite-Hite Sunny Suzy metal toy kitchen set included a refrigerator, a stove (complete with utensils, cookie sheet, saucepan, etc.), a sink and a washing machine and came in avocado to match the 1970s hottest color. In good condition, this set would cost around $100 today.
Cathy Cook in her article Wolverine Toys: tin-litho stars (Collectibles: Flea Market Finds, Spring 1997) noted, “Although Wolverine made the same housekeeping items from the 1920s to the 1960s – stoves, refrigerators, kitchen sinks – they continually updated and modernized them. Their 1942 refrigerator, with the tin-litho foods on the inside of the door, gave way, in 1955, to the ’latest’ modern appliances: A refrigerator with separate freezer and fridge doors complete with ice-cube trays and mini packages of frozen foods. Two years later, the refrigerator was updated with a revolving shelf.”
The Wolverine No. 670 metal doll house was actually a well-disguised toy storage unit. It had several shelves inside the house and opened with two doors, allowing girls to store their Wolverine accessories.
Snapped together toys
Appliances purchased from a catalog were shipped in “knocked down” condition and had to be reassembled using Wolverine’s patented Rigid-Lock construction that snapped together in minutes.
Wolverine took pride in detailing every Rite-Hite piece. A stove from this line came with control knobs that turned, a see-through window in the oven door, chrome plated handle, realistic lithographed burners and oven rack. A 1960 Wolverine catalog offered such a stove for $11.
Most Wolverine metal housekeeping toys remain inexpensive to purchase. Collectors tend to seek good to mint-conditioned pieces, but some collectors enjoy restoring a few of the older, played-with pieces. Pieces with Disney characters sell for a premium since they are cross-collectible.
Wolverine Supply and Manufacturing Company changed its name to Wolverine Toy Company in 1962. In 1971, in an effort to revitalize the company, Wolverine moved its operations and manufacturing from Pittsburgh to Booneville, Ark.; and in 1986, Wolverine Toys began marketing all of their toys under the name “Today’s Kids.”
Most collectors consider pre-1971 toys the “Golden Age” of Wolverine Toys. The metal Wolverine toys are the ones that collectors played with as children and seek for their collections today, especially since all were made in the United States. And at the top of the list of collectible Wolverine toys is the “Rite Hite” line of toy kitchens.