Christmas meant additions to miniature world

The author had a kitchen set just like this one recently available on eBay.
The author had a kitchen set just like this one recently available on eBay.

It should come as no surprise I ended up a cook and a food writer, for I had been trained from an early age.

In my tender years, I had amassed a kitchen’s worth of child-size appliances and set up my own operation in the basement of our house on Long Island with table and chairs, plastic food, dishes, pots and pans. It was a complete miniature kitchen — and I ran it in all seriousness.

Each Christmas brought a new major element. Early on, I got a Formica table, padded metal chairs and a toy CorningWare dish playset. Later, my parents supplied pint-sized appliances: a stove with knobs that turned and a cabinet with a sink that could be hooked up to running water. There was a refrigerator to store my well-marbled plastic steaks and chops.

My parents were really good at Christmas: Mom with the decorating and special holiday foods, and the gingerbread house she figured out how to build and light from the inside; and Dad, whose philosophy was the more presents the better.

Christmas morning in our house was epic. Six spoiled kids each had a pile of gifts and a bulging stocking; there were stacks of Christmas LPs on the record player and at least a dozen kinds of cookies for breakfast (Mom took the morning off).

But first, church. Never mind that we regularly attended Mass on Sunday, and that we went every Wednesday and First Friday of the month with school and any other holiday that came up on the Catholic calendar. Church was nonnegotiable.

Christmas was the only day we didn’t complain all the way to the church about the earliness of the 7:45 a.m. service. With any luck, we’d be home by 9.

We weren’t even allowed a glimpse of the mother lode before we left on the grounds that some gifts were simply too big to wrap. My kitchen appliances were in that category. If I’d seen the tree before we left, the surprise of my best Christmas gift would be given away.

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Accumulated years of best gifts created my kitchen, a happy place, a world I could organize and control, a haven. Funny that I can hardly remember it today.

My siblings did a collective “Ooh, yeah” when I asked if they remembered the kitchen. It was a truly comprehensive setup that filled a large portion of the basement, but no one could really recall it either. And sadly, no photos exist.

The appliances were made of metal, that much I can remember, and the set was modern in that it reflected the kitchen style of the 1960s, like my mom’s. And that was it.

So I set out to dig up some memories and found the Wolverine Toy Company in Pittsburgh, which manufactured metal toys for nearly seven decades. The Senator John Heinz History Center there has a collection of metal toys made by the company, which went out of business after it moved to Arkansas in the 1970s.

The Wolverine Supply & Manufacturing Co., founded in 1903 and later known as the Wolverine Toy Company, originally made metal kitchen tools and household supplies, and chose Pittsburgh, the center of the metal industry during the early 20th century, for its headquarters.

In 1909, Wolverine Supply & Manufacturing obtained the Sand Toy Company and its lines of tin sand toys. Over the next several decades, Wolverine turned out toys ranging from tin battleships to household appliances.

So that’s where my kitchen set came from. Now that I had a name, I started searching, trying to
remember even what color it was.

At first, I found the Sunny Suzy line of yellow appliances, but the stove was wrong. It had two small doors with the broiler drawer below, and it reflected a much earlier kitchen style than mine. Wolverine’s later kitchens had pink appliances with rounded corners. Cute, but not right.

Wolverine’s appliances always reflected the culture of the era and the company continually updated its signature toys to reflect current kitchen style trends. My kitchen would be 1960s.

I scrolled through pages on Pinterest and history websites, forwarding photos to my sister Peggy. “Does this look right?” I’d asked, but no, they didn’t. We both scrolled on.

As it turned out, my kitchen set found me. One day while shopping online, a collection of battered and rusty avocado green kitchen appliances set up outdoors for photos showed up in an eBay ad on the page. I scrolled through the photos and the memories came back. It was just right.

There was the oven door with the window. You could see the metal sheet with an oven rack painted on it, and the stove had fake red coils. The steel sink cabinet had a plastic sink insert with faucets where you could hook up a water line (my parents wisely did not). Inside the open refrigerator, the freezer was lined with printed food packages. The knobs were gone, as was the faucet.

It was for sale in Virginia, pickup only, and I could have it for $65, but I didn’t; I just wanted to see it again.

Wolverine made toy irons and metal ironing boards in the Sunny Suzy line as well, as I discovered after finding a photo of my brother, Pat, and me with the toys. Theirs look similar to the ones in my photo. I’d like to think they were made by the same company that produced my much-loved kitchen.

I don’t even know what happened to the appliances, the table and chairs, the dishes, pots and pans and plastic food, except that about the time I was in junior high my parents had refinished the basement and the kitchen was gone.

Toys of the time reinforced traditional gender roles, and the Heinz History Center tells us Wolverine’s domestic toys for girls were called “Little Queen” and “Sunny Suzy.” The toys for boys, with racing or pinball themes, were marketed to encourage interests that “might later develop into his life’s work.”

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Traditional roles, strongly reinforced in our home, never occurred to me as I puttered in my toy kitchen, as much a happy and safe place as is my own kitchen today (it’s green, too). I just liked kitchens and cooking.

Pottery Barn Kids sells the child-size Chelsea fridge, oven and sink set ($897), made of wood and fiberboard, with clean lines and up-to-the-moment details like a farmer’s sink with gooseneck faucet, fridge with top compressor and grill available in stainless-steel gray.

They are similar to upscale appliances available today. I am so glad to see that toy kitchens are still for sale, and I hope that many children are enjoying pretend cooking and making happy memories in the Chelsea kitchen, or whatever kitchen is their happy place.

Hopefully, they will take photos.

The author is a freelance writer for The Daily Gazette.

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