In the field of antique cast-iron toy collecting, the Vindex John Deere brand is the cream of the crop — and assembling a collection of these rare and costly toys is anything but child’s play.
They were made and marketed over an eight-year period during the 1930s, and today are aggressively sought out by collectors who recognize their rarity and historical significance. Even in the midst of a national recession, Vindex toys hold their value.
There never really was a Vindex company; the toys were made and marketed by the National Sewing Machine Company of Belvedere, Ill., during the Great Depression as a means of survival.
Prior to 1930, the company was assembling 500 “Family” brand sewing machines and 250 washing machines on a daily basis. When sales began to plummet, the company branched out into a product line of tools and workshop machinery. Still, business was suffering, so they began making home goods like table lamps, bookends, bulldog doorstops, owl and dog banks. They also approached John Deere and got permission to reproduce horse-drawn wagons and near exact replicas of the ever-popular brand of farm machinery. Finally, they resurrected the original name of their first sewing machine, “Vindex,” for their new product line.
Since money was scarce during the meager years
of the Great Depression, people — especially farmers — could not afford the luxury of buying toys for their children. National Sewing Machine Company worked around this quandary by teaming up with the publishers of Farm Mechanics magazine. They offered Vindex farm toys as “prizes” to ambitious kids who sold subscriptions to the publication.
Thousands of farm kids across the grain belt hit up their friends, neighbors and relatives for subscriptions to Farm Mechanics magazine in hopes of earning the toys. The first to be offered — and by far the most common — was the John Deere tractor, painted green with yellow lug wheels, a nickel-plated power pulley and a removable nickel-plated driver. The “prize” could be won for just one three-year subscription to the magazine, which cost $1 annually.
One of the rarest Vindex toys is the combine, which was described in 1930 as “cutter and reel operated with imitation motor exhaust, painted in John Deere
colors — with removable man.” To win the prize, a kid had to sell five three-year subscriptions. As a result, not many youngsters were able to assemble an entire collection of 10 Vindex toys over the eight-year production span. Furthermore, farm kids really did play with these toys, so it’s hard to find them in good to very good condition.
While the Vindex line of farm toy is rare and desirable, it isn’t the only brand in the collecting field. In 1945, Fred and Gertrude Ertl began producing toy tractors in the basement of their Debuque, Iowa, home. By the 1950s, the Ertl company became the largest producer of miniature farm machinery in the world by holding licenses to produce all the major brands of farm-toy tractors.
Ertl put farm-toy collecting on the map with their scale model replicas. Case, John Deere, Allis-Chalmers, Farmall, Ford, Oliver, Case-International and more are out there, just ripe for the picking. Ertl was also instrumental in building the National Farm Toy Museum in Dyersville, Iowa.
Michael Bailey grew up on a 90-acre farm near Chester, W.V., during the 1970s. He has been collecting farm toys for about 15 years.
When asked how his childhood experience affected his passion, he said, “On the farm we mostly used International Harvester (H) Farmall tractors. My grandfather had a Farmall Cub tractor I really admired since it was small enough to use as a mower on three acres, yet big enough and tough enough to handle the job.
“While looking for my first Cub, I recall going into a Tractor Supply store and seeing a 1/16 scale Farmall Cub toy — new in the box on the shelf — for less than $20. I didn’t buy it that day, but I had remembrances of my dad taking me to a Case dealer as a young child and seeing the Case toys on the shelves.
“I finally went back to that Tractor Supply store and bought that Farmall Cub toy, and since then, I’ve been hooked.”
Bailey now has more than 300 farm toys in his collection, including the 10 hard-to-find Vindex toys that were produced by the National Sewing Machine Company.