This summer our family has taken up a new form of entertainment – playing croquet. Mind you, we do not play by any official rules and treat it a bit like miniature golf with hoops. Plus, we have added a few house rules of our own. One of these house rules insists that participants must wear hats: the crazier, the better! We have had a lot of fun hunting down an assortment of hats to have on hand for ourselves and any guests that come over to play – stocking caps, Darth Vader helmets, Australian cowboy hats, top hats – to list a few. The strange looks, smirks, and shy questions we get from some of our neighbors indicate employment of them as observers as well.
The game of croquet and golf both came from a variation of the Roman game of paganica. Basically a version of paganica with limited space became croquet a one with a lot of space became golf. In the 1860s in England, croquet had become a trendy game after being brought there in the 17th century by a bunch of Irish travelers. Croquet was officially established in 1867 and was an important game as it was the only acceptable game that women and girls were allowed play. It became popular with those who were courting since a ball hit into a grove a trees could turn to a chance to flirt or even sneak a kiss. The 1880s were a perfect time to manufacture and sell croquet set since leisure activities were becoming more popular in the United States.
My husband appreciates the quality of work that went in to making the older croquet sets and has collected a few different sets for us to use. On one, he noticed a worn and brittle label that read “South Bend Toys, South Bend, Indiana. With a bit of searching we quickly became interested in the history of the South Bend Toy Company and the croquet sets they built. Frederick Badet, who worked as a grocery clerk and John Teel, a woodworker, established the toy company in 1874. They began by building wooden toys- including croquet sets. They constructed these sturdy sets in their spare time after work, using locally grown hardwood trees.
The Badet family owned the South Bend Toy Company until 1956. By the early 1900s, the South Bend Toy Company had 225 employees and continued to grow and moved into a larger building. In a South Bend Toy Company Catalog (dated 1911) a croquet set sold for 75 cents, and a shellacked set sold for $2.25. In 1960 South Bend Toy Company merged with Playskool, then Milton Bradley and finally Hasbro. Sadly, the South Bend Toy Company could not compete with the increased competition of domestic and foreign toy makers and in 1985 they went out of business.
Another cause of the ruin of the South Bend Company was the high quality of craftsmanship they exercised in making their wooden toys. For example, the croquet sets were so well made that even though they may have had a lot of use, they were sturdy enough that people hardly ever had to buy a second set.
Louis Chreist, who served as the President of South Bend Toy Company from 1960-1977, shared his philosophy about toys: he said that a toy first “entertained and educated the child. It should teach how to play with other children or how to treat others. It should have a moral value. It should teach without shaking a finger.'' He also believed that a few good toys were much better than a room filled with mediocre ones.
As I consider the fine craftsmanship, and the lofty ideals for making toys at South Bend Toy Company, I also wonder if that much thought and care goes into making a toy today. I have serious doubts, as profits instead of moral values appear to be the driving force in today’s toy production. In my mind’s eye, I can see Frederick and John quickly eating their evening meal after a long days work, and gathering at their small workshop to build, lathe, and assemble their handcrafted croquet sets. Next time I put on my crazy hat and grab my yellow handled South Bend Toy Company croquet mallet, I will more greatly appreciate the piece of the past that I hold in my hand.
“Croquet: The Lost Art of Toy Making in South Bend,” South Bend Tribune, 16 August 1999 by Kathy Borlik.