2008-05-11 - Jim Hughes & Chas Saunter
Hilary Fisher Page and Kiddicraft
Anyone who has followed Lego history, or who perhaps has studied British educational toys, by now surely knows the connection between Hilary Fisher Page's Self-Locking Building Brick and Lego's Automatic Binding Brick, but aside from this fact there is remarkably little information about Page or Kiddicraft, his pioneering toy company.
Hilary Fisher Page (also known as Harry) was born on 20 Aug 1904 in Sanderstead, Surrey. He was the first child of Samuel Fisher and Lillian Maude Page. His sister, Vivienne, was born several years later.
As a child he showed an interest in making toys and inventing his own games. His father, who worked in the lumber trade, once bought him two tons of scrap wood from a local sawmill. This wood pile apparently kept him busy for several years and further sparked his interest in building toys. When asked years later how he became a professional toymaker he answered that "...he had an intelligent father who in his childhood gave him the opportunity to develop his own ideas for making toys."
Page received his secondary education at the Shrewsbury Public School, in 'School House' under headmaster Canon Sawyer. Shrewsbury, one of England's oldest boys' boarding schools, counts Charles Darwin and Michael Palin of Monty Python among its notable alumni. He was admitted in 1918 and graduated after the summer term in 1923. Records show that while there he was an excellent rower. It was also here that he began to show his entrepreneurial side. He was very interested in photography and soon set up a business developing photos for the other students.
After his education was finished he, like his father, worked in the timber trade for several years and in 1929 he married Norah Harris, a long-time neighbor of the family. They had one child, Jill, on 8 May 1932.
In 1932 Page, along with several partners, including Warwick Allpass, a friend from Shrewsbury, decided to go into the toy business. Using Page's savings of 100 UKP, they opened a small toy shop called "Kiddicraft" at 6 Godstone Road, Purley, Surrey. At first he imported wood toys from Russia, such as stacking rings and matryoshka nesting dolls and later began to introduce his own designs. The business was a struggle and he ended up in bankruptcy court. A period he described as "most difficult." The bankruptcy was finally discharged in 1937.
Nevertheless he continued to work on new toy designs and, perhaps most importantly, began to seriously study early childhood play. Or more specifically "...he used to spend the whole of every Wednesday in a different nursery school, sitting on the floor and playing with the children, to find out exactly what type of toys would be of the greatest interest to them."(1) The application of child psychology to toy design, while now commonplace, was revolutionary at the time. The result was a range of toys designed around specific stages of childhood development, a philosophy he described in his first book - Playtime in the First Five Years (Watson & Crossland Limited, 1938).
Page had become increasingly unhappy with the use of wood as a material for children's toys:
"...For generations we have tried to find some type of paint or enamel which cannot be sucked or gnawed off, in view of the fact that practically every toy or plaything given to a baby or a young child goes straight to his mouth." (2)
And he felt that plastics would offer a safe and hygienic alternative:
"Mothers are becoming much more hygienically minded and they realize that every baby's toy should be thoroughly washed in hot soapy water once a day. This can be done with toys molded from urea. Dust and germs cannot cling to the bright shiny surface, and the range of bright colors is most attractive and interesting to the child." (2)
Throughout the early and mid-1930s he experimented with molding plastic toys, mostly using the thermoplastic urea-formaldehyde. His partners, however, felt that plastics were simply too risky for the company. Especially a company already in a difficult financial position:
"When I decided to start using plastics for Kiddicraft 'Sensible' toys in 1936, my co-directors were certain that I should ruin the business with this new-fangled material, and that persuaded me to form a new company, British Plastic Toys Ltd." (3)
In 1937 he introduced a line of plastic "Sensible Toys' under the name Bri-Plax. Many of these new designs, such as the Building Beakers, Pyramid Rings, or Billie and his Seven Barrels, were based on the Russian toys he had previously imported. But there were also new designs, such as the Interlocking Building Cube, which would be awarded a British patent in 1940. (4)
These new "Sensible Toys" became popular with British mothers for exactly the reasons Page had envisioned and the company expanded with a new warehouse in Kenley, Surrey. But whatever success he was beginning to enjoy with the business it was at the expense of his personal life. The stress of the last decade had deteriorated his marriage and he and Norah were separated shortly before the war.
World War II
All of Kiddicraft's production ceased with the beginning of the war. As part of the British war effort Page toured the US from 1940-42 lecturing and broadcasting on 'Children in Wartime' and promoting trade relations between the US and UK. While in Chicago he met Oreline, a US citizen, and they were married in Baltimore on 23 July 1941, shortly after finalizing his divorce from Norah.
Page and his new wife returned to England in 1942 on the first convoy to cross the Atlantic. Back home he toured England lecturing to the troops on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. During this time he also published his second book, Toys in Wartime (US Dept. of Labor Children's Bureau, 1942), which showed mothers how to create their own playthings given the extreme shortage of good educational toys.
In 1945, as raw materials became available, Page again began marketing his toys. By this time his partners clearly saw the potential of plastics and the toys were marketed under the name Kiddicraft "Sensible Toys." Advertisements in the trade magazine, Games and Toys, announced that their "Plastic Educational Toys, in pre-war form, are now available again in limited quantities."
Post War Kiddicraft
In 1946 Oreline and Hilary adopted twin baby girls, Geraldine and Vivienne, who were born in late 1945.
After the war the use of plastics exploded. Soon consumer goods, including toys, made of thermoplastics became commonplace. But by this time Page had a 10 year lead in the field and his post war "Sensible Toys" became very popular in England. He completely rebuilt the company and introduced not only all of the pre-war designs but many new toys as well. Sales steadily grew over the next several years and the Kenley warehouse was converted into a small factory.
The Self-Locking Building Brick.
Among the many post-war Kiddicraft designs was a new building block. The Self-Locking Building Bricks were essentially smaller, refined versions of the Interlocking Building Cube. Bricks could be stacked on each other and were held in place by studs on the top. The bricks also featured slits on their side that allowed panel-like doors, windows or cards to be inserted. He patented the basic design, a 2 X 4 studded brick, in 1947. This was later followed by patents for the side slits (1949) and the baseplate (1952).
The Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Brick sets were first marketed in 1947. As a promotion Page and his family built large display models for the 1947 Earl's Court Toy Fair. Jill remembers "building 'Sky Scrapers' that were 'as tall as I was – 5' 6" ". The first two sets were soon followed by several more full and supplementary sets.
The Self-Locking Building Bricks were aimed at the older children, and considering the UK market for construction toys at the time, dominated by Meccano, it doesn't appear that they were a major part of the Kiddicraft catalog.
The Automatic Binding Brick
Like everyone else Ole Kirk Christiansen had been following the rising popularity of plastics and he decided that Lego should manufacture plastic toys. Ole and his son Godtfred found a London based company that was interested in expanding their equipment sales and bought the first injection moulding machine in Denmark. Along with the equipment the company sent several example items to show the full capabilities of the machine. Among these were samples, and possibly drawings, of Page's Self-Locking Building Brick.(4)
Ole modified the Kiddicraft brick and marketed his own version, The Automatic Binding Brick, in 1949.
"With the cooperation of a tooling works in Copenhagen, we modified the design of the brick, and moulds were made. The modifications in relation to the Kiddicraft bricks included straightening round corners and converting inches to cm and mm, which altered the size of the brick by approx. 0.1 mm in relation to the Kiddicraft brick. The studs on the bricks were also flattened on top." (5)
Lego also copied and modified the larger Interlocking Building Cube and sold it under the name Lego Plastic Byggeklodser in the early 1950s.
It appears that Hilary & Oreline Page visited Denmark in June 1949, whether they visited Ole and Godtfred is a matter for conjecture. His widow Oreline indicated that he was unaware of Lego's version of his brick.
Although the market was now flooded with inexpensive plastic toys, Kiddicraft continued to enjoy success, particularly in the pre-school market. His cot and pram designs even won the British Toy of the Year in 1951.
Kiddicraft was successful enough that Page began to seek foreign partners and found Philippe Mayer. Mayer started Kiddicraft France in 1950. In 1954 Mayer, along Kurt Molineus and Wilhelm Seeling, started Kiddicraft Germany, and with Alberto Barcessat, Kiddicraft Spain. Kiddicraft products were also distributed in Australia, South Africa, and the US.
Page continued to write about early childhood play and published a second edition of Playtime in the First Five Years (Allen & Unwin, 1953). The second edition was translated into several languages, including French, Spanish, and even US English.
At the time the Kiddicraft office was in Hilary Page's flat in Barkston Gardens, Earls Court. He had his desk in the living room, his secretaries worked in the spare room and his designer Michael Duck worked in the attic. His children fondly remember the year he set up the Kiddicraft stand in his flat rather than at Toy Fair around the corner and moved the family into a cold hotel. Later the office moved to 2 Ellis Street, Sloane Street, London S.W.1.
The System of Play
Page was unable to successfully commercialize the Self-Locking Building Bricks, but to be fair; Lego wasn't much more successful with their Automatic Binding Bricks. Godtfred renamed the bricks Lego Mursten in 1953 and marketed seven different sets, as well as several supplementary sets, but, at most, they accounted for 5% of Lego's sales. What changed Lego's fortunes was the "System of Play" introduced at the 1955 Nurnburg Toy Fair. The System of Play integrated all of the Mursten sets, as well as a number of new elements, into a unified theme based around a streetscape or town plan. It would turn out to be one of the most significant ideas in company history.
Page, however, was paying little attention to the Self-Locking Building bricks, to say nothing about Lego's System of Play. By this time his focus was on his most ambitious project yet – the Kiddicraft Miniatures.
The Kiddicraft Miniatures
The Kiddicraft Miniatures were small reproductions of actual food and household items, such as detergent boxes, soup cans, tea and sugar boxes, ice cream cartons, beer and wine bottles, even cigarette packs. He promised "over 300" different products and set out on what was, perhaps, the largest licensing arrangement in the toy industry. Kiddicraft eventually produced over 200 of these miniatures but the company simply could not deliver on all of Pages' promises, and could not honour their agreements with their licensors.
Page became deeply troubled with these pressures on the business and feared a total collapse of the company. Tragically, he committed suicide on 24 June 1957.
After Page's death David Day became Managing Director, and along with Henry Darrell, Company Secretary, and Warwick Allpass, Page's longtime friend and major shareholder, the company continued. Oreline remained an active director until the company was sold in 1977.
Lego in Britain
By the late 1950s Lego was expanding into Western Europe. British Lego Ltd. was set up in late 1959 and the first sets were sold the following year. Page was never aware of the Lego brick. When asked later, Page's daughter would only state that she "was relieved that my father never knew about Lego before he died."
Page and Kiddicraft had always been aggressive about protecting their designs. Between 1939 and his death in 1957 he was awarded more than 30 different patents, including three patents for the Self-Locking Building Brick. He even defended the design against infringement in 1950. However Lego's design, which by now included the tube-and-stud coupling, was also patented in the UK. (6) It does not appear that Kiddicraft ever pursued any action against Lego.
In 1981, as Lego was beginning their litigation with Tyco, they purchased all remaining rights to the Kiddicraft design from Hestair-Kiddicraft for 45,000 UKP. (7)
In 1977 Oreline sold the company to the Hestair conglomerate. The new, completely restructured company, Hestair-Kiddicraft, continued to produce toys. They marketed many of the older 'Sensible Toys' as well as a number of new toys, mostly designed by David Day. The company even moved to larger headquarters in Bristol in 1984.
Hestair sold the company to Fisher-Price in 1989. Fisher-Price used the Kiddicraft brand name, but none of the classic Page and Day designs. In the mid 1990s Fisher-Price finally dropped the Kiddicraft brand. It was the apparent end of the Kiddicraft brand and their toys.
- Page, Hilary Fisher. Playtime in the First Five Years. Second edition. London: Allen & Unwin, 1953.
- Page, Hilary Fisher. "Plastics as a Medium for Toys." Daily Graphic Plastics Exhibition catalog 1946. pp 112-114. If you have a copy of this count yourself lucky - today the catalog is worth about 500 UKP.
- Page, Hilary. "Improvements in Toy Building Blocks" UK patent 529,580. 17 Apr 1940.
- Interlego A.G. v. Tyco Industries 1989 1 A.C. 217. The assertion that Lego had copied the Kiddicraft brick came during Godtfred's cross examination.
- The Lego Group. Developing a Product Leaflet. Billund: The Lego Group, 1997. pp 2-3. A rare mention of Kiddicraft from an official Lego source.
- Christiansen, Godtfred. "Improvements Relating to Toy Building Sets" UK patent GB 866557. 26 Apr 1961
- Lithgow, Adrian. "The Ghost that is Haunting Lego Land." The Mail on Sunday. 26 July 1987.
--Jim Hughes (Cincinnati), Chas Saunter (Hong Kong)