A peek behind the doors of Canadian toy factories in 1954

CBC Newsmagazine's cameras took viewers into the Canadian factories where dolls, rubber balls ride-on toys and plush teddy bears were made.

An inside look at the places where dolls, rubber balls, ride-on toys and teddy bears were made

A look behind the scenes at Canadian toy manufacturing in 1954

3 years ago
Duration 3:07
CBC Newsmagazine took the camera behind the scenes at the the Reliable Toys and Viceroy factories to see how dolls and rubber balls were made.

As Christmas approached in 1954, Canadian store shelves were abundant with toys for all ages and some parents shopped specially for those made in Canada.

CBC Newsmagazine's cameras travelled to factories in Ontario and Quebec, where they revealed the beauty secrets of dolls with expertly-styled hair and showed the newest thing in ride-on vehicles for the younger set.

Rows of eyes, lashes attached, ready to be inserted into doll faces in a Toronto toy factory in 1954. (CBC Archives/CBC Newsmagazine)

The first stop was the factory where one firm, which made close to 500,000 dolls a year, was "unique practically the world over, because it makes every one of the dozens of components assembled by expert fingers."

A little shake of the head, and it's confirmed, these eyes will open and close just like real ones. (CBC Archives/CBC Newsmagazine)

There, one worker created long-lashed eyes, which another in the assembly line used to bring a moulded baby face to life — inserting them and, with a quick shake, checking to make sure they opened and closed.

As the camera zoomed in on some of the "expert fingers" deftly sewing curly saran hair to doll heads, narrator Rex Loring told viewers about the workings of the factory.

"Eight hundred employees, mostly women ... work here," he said. "The firm operates on a profit-sharing basis, employees benefit in times of prosperity."

An incomplete doll has her hair styled in a Canadian factory in 1954. (CBC Archives/CBC Newsmagazine)

Loring said this model applied to the "bench hands" who could be seen giving "stylish hairdos to hundreds of dolls' better-than-natural hair."

Most toy firms, he told viewers, produced "strictly for the home market."

The company that CBC visited, however, made dolls that could be destined for "Venezuela, or the Belgian Congo, Lebanon or Singapore." 

And after a record 35 years in the business, this firm was proof "Canada can compete in a highly competitive field."

'A surefire seller all the year round'

A trip Newsmagazine took to another Toronto factory revealed what gave rubber balls their bounce.

Toy balls are slow-cooked under radiant heat at a Toronto factory in 1954. (CBC Archives/CBC Newsmagazine)

"A gas-filled or hollow ball begins as a flat piece of raw rubber," viewers were told, as the camera showed the product being molded on a vacuum machine.   

A woman in a Toronto toy factory in 1954 adds a spray design to new rubber balls (CBC Archives/CBC Newsmagazine)

There "the non-toxic gas filling starts as two pills and a dash of water."

Now the ball was called a "biscuit" and was dusted with mica dust.

"And like real biscuits, it has to be cooked," said Loring. 

This happened slowly, under radiant heat. 

"Canada's small population," governed the speed of the machine, according to Loring. "If it moved faster it would turn out too many balls for the market to absorb." 

Just 500,000 of them bounced into the Canadian market, "for an up and down existence."

Most of the toy firms were located in Ontario, but "a multitude of small businesses" were spread across Canada.   

Competition fierce for toymakers

Wheeled toys, and honey bears made in '54

3 years ago
Duration 2:28
CBC Newsmagazine explored the Que. factory where wheeled toys were assembled, and went to Ottawa where one company made plush toys.

So next stop, Quebec, where a subsidiary of a British firm assembled "a wide variety of wheeled toys" for the Canadian market. 

A boy test-drives a toy chariot at a Quebec factory where British toys are assembled, in 1954. (CBC Archives/CBC Newsmagazine)

"One potential customer" — actually, a little boy wearing shorts and a plaid T-shirt — was there to test-drive the product, gleefully pedaling across the camera's sights in a horse-drawn chariot.

And then the viewer landed in Ottawa, where one small firm found the production of plush toys, cuddly bears and dogs, profitable.

"Although," viewers were told, "they're expensive" and competition from outside Canada was fierce.

Canadian wages, at around $1 an hour, "sometimes less in the toy industry," had to compete with lower wages in other plush-toy making countries — $0.40 in Britain, $0.37 in Germany, and $0.18 cents in Japan. 

Workers sewing honey bear heads to their bodies included a "Made in Canada" label, as then required under Canadian law. 

A plush 'honey bear' is assembled at an Ottawa factory in 1954. (CBC Archives/CBC Newsmagazine)

Unfortunately the imported toys did not have the same requirement — toys made in the U.S. or Japan did not have to have a label saying so.

That sometimes made it difficult for Canadian shoppers looking to "buy Canadian."