Museum Artifact: Elgo American Plastic Bricks set No. 705 (1950s) and Halsam Double Twelve Club Dominoes (1960s)
Made By: Halsam Products Co., 4114 N. Ravenswood Ave., Chicago, IL [Ravenswood]
Upon encountering an old cylindrical cardboard container of “American Plastic Bricks by Elgo,” nine out of ten people are likely to make the same spontaneous assumption—that they’re looking at a cheap knockoff of Legos.
. . . And a lazy one at that. I mean . . . ELGO? It’s a bit on-the-nose for a toy set involving rectangular interlocking plastic building-blocks, ain’t it? Did they really think they could just swap the first two letters of the name and shamelessly piggyback off the success of those ingenious Danish toy pioneers over at the LEGO Corporation—the one brand forever synonymous with this genre of children’s entertainment?
Well, as it turns out, the classic copycat narrative isn’t quite as cut-and-dried here as it first appears. For an accusation of plagiarism to stand up in court, the chronology of the two items in question is just as important as any comparison of their content. And in the case of our Chicago-made American Plastic Bricks, the timeline reveals a surprising truth that flies in the face of our pop-cultural presumptions. That’s right, folks. It was ELGO, not LEGO, that built its bricks first!
In what has to rank as one of the more bizarre semi-coincidences in the history of registered trademarks, ELGO Plastics, Inc. was actually established as a division of Chicago’s Halsam Products Company in 1941—long before LEGO entered the American marketplace (1961). Odder still, the inter-locking toy bricks developed by Halsam / ELGO were introduced in the late 1930s, pre-dating LEGO’s foray into that same field (1949’s “Automatic Binding Bricks) by a full decade.
Everything may be awesome in Legoland, but original? Not so much.
In fairness, it seems that both the Danes and Americans came to their eerily similar identities quite independently. In Denmark, the “LEGO” name had been put into use with the company’s early wood toys as a reference to the phrase “leg godt,” meaning “play well.” Meanwhile, in Chicago, established toy makers Harold “Hal” Elliott and Samuel Goss, Jr. chose to name their new plastics business after themselves: combining the EL from Elliott with the GO from Goss (hence, EL-GO!).
This was standard operating procedure for the duo, mind you, as they’d started their original toy business back in 1917 by using the same cutesy taxonomical technique: HAL Elliot + SAM Goss = HALSAM Products.
[Halsam Products / Elgo founders Sam Goss Jr. and Harold Elliott at a board meeting in 1953]
History of Halsam Products Co., Part I: Hal and Sam
Before becoming business partners, Hal Elliott (1886-1973) and Sam Goss Jr. (1896-1976) were already family; brothers-in-law to be precise. Hal, a former clothes dealer and insurance salesman, married Sam’s sister Hazel Goss in 1915, putting the two men literally under the same roof for several years at the stately Goss family home in the north suburb of New Trier.
Back then, Hal was known by his birth name, Harold Elliott Hirsch—the German surname having come over with his grandparents. After World War I broke out, however, he elected to swap the order of his middle name and last name as a safeguard against growing anti-German sentiments. He would be Harold H. Elliott from that point forward.
[Left: Advertisement for the Goss Printing Press Co., circa 1900. Right: Sam Goss Jr., as a boy, riding shotgun beside his father Sam Goss Sr. on the South Side of Chicago, circa 1905]
Sam Goss Jr., like Elliott, was a second generation American (in his case, of English stock), but he’d been raised into wealth, rather than marrying into it. His father Samuel Goss, Sr. and uncles Frederick and William Goss were the founders of Chicago’s Goss Printing Press Company—known for an innovative “Straightline” rotary press that had become the standard of the newspaper industry in the early 20th century.
As Sam Jr. came of age, the obvious progression would have been for his father to simply groom him—and his new brother-in-law Hal—for long term positions in the family business. And indeed, both young men would eventually serve on the board of the Goss Printing Press Co. Before his death in 1922, however, patriarch Samuel Goss Sr. seemed quite intent on seeing the next generation build something of their own first; a business wholly outside the printing industry. Maybe it was the uncertainty of World War I that was the motivating factor, or a nostalgia for the simpler distractions of youth. Either way, the building blocks were soon laid for Sam and Hal’s new venture, and coincidentally, it involved building blocks.
II. Chip Off the Old Blocks
By most accounts, Hal Elliott and Sam Goss Jr. officially organized the Halsam Products Company in 1917; hence the HAL-SAM name. But according to historian Herman Kogan’s 1985 book Goss: Proud of the Past, Committed to the Future—a history of the Goss Printing Press Co.—it was really Samuel Goss Senior who got the ball rolling, essentially handing his kid the keys to a factory and arranging most of the furniture therein.
“Early in 1917,” Kogan writes, “as a hedge against possible economic slowdowns, [Goss Sr.] had purchased a small toy factory in Muskegon Heights, Michigan, which specialized in hand-crafted wooden A-B-C blocks for children. His partner was his son-in-law, Harold Elliott, so the name affixed to the company was Halsam.”
Kogan acknowledges that Sam Sr. subsequently handed off the daily operations of the toy business to Elliott and young Sam Jr., and that the Michigan factory was promptly removed to Chicago at 4114 Ravenswood Avenue. But this still conflicts with the notion that Sam Jr. was the original “SAM” in the HALSAM equation. Kogan goes a step further, too, crediting the elder Goss Sr. with not only buying the toy business, but coming up with the “vital contrivance” of the new enterprise, as well.
“Using basic principles of printing presses,” he writes, “[Goss Sr.] designed a machine that stamped letters on the blocks automatically and increased their output a thousand-fold and more.”
The 1961 book Toys in America refutes this, giving credit to the prodigal son, Sam Goss Jr., for applying the technology of his dad’s industry into the toy trade:
“Since his father had been a manufacturer of rotary printing presses for newspapers,” the author states, “it was natural for [Goss Jr.] to adapt the principles of such a press to a continuous column of wooden blocks instead of a sheet of paper.”
[Several drawings from a 1920 patent application, by Samuel G. Goss (no “Junior” or “Senior” specified), for the “Method of and Apparatus for Manufacturing and Printing Toy Blocks.” The patent was approved in 1923 as U.S. patent 1,465,638]
Whichever Goss you give the credit to [patent records suggest papa], the result is the same: the Halsam Products Company thrived immediately by relying on modern automation and factory efficiency to make quality alphabet blocks and dominoes at a cheap price. By the time Sam Goss Sr. died in 1922, his son and son-in-law had already turned the upstart toy business into a major player on the national scene, gaining significant ground on the former dominant manufacturer of wooden alphabet blocks, the Embossing Company of Albany, New York.
Compared to the Embossing Company’s relatively old-fashioned methods, Halsam’s blocks were produced at a furious pace at the Ravenswood plant, with far fewer workers needed to do so.
“With only two attendants, a single block press turned out 175,000 blocks a day,” according to Toys In America. “And with two such presses, the Halsam plant’s output came to 350,000 blocks daily.
“Another Halsam machine made dominoes with almost no attention from a human being; as the black hardwood blocks moved forward, the varying numbers of white spots were added, and when the dominoes reached the end of the machine, they slid into a box that held the requisite number for a complete set, already sorted. This machine turned out 8,000 complete sets of dominoes each day, and the demand was such that it never stopped working, except for occasional repair and cleaning.”
Advanced machinery also allowed for quick innovations. When the toy buyers at Marshall Field’s told Goss and Elliott that some parents were complaining about the sharp corners of their alphabet blocks, the company developed rounded corners and introduced “Safety Blocks” to cleverly address the concerns. In the 1920s, grooves were added with the “Hi-Lo” line of wood blocks, enabling easier stacking. Halsam was already becoming an authority on a whole new generation of “construction” toys.
Notably, Halsam’s entire toy line was wood-based during its early years, so when a small fire broke out in the factory in March of 1928, the “large amounts of wood, sawdust, and celluloid” in the building quickly turned the blaze into a raging inferno, costing upwards of $100,000 in damages (about $1.5 million in modern dough). Had this occurred just 18 months later, it might have permanently destroyed the business, as rebuilding a factory after the stock market crash could have seemed like a fool’s errand. Instead, in these final rosy days of the Roaring ’20s, the fire was seen as the impetus for Goss and Elliott to build a whole new plant on the same location, twice the size of the original.
“The new Halsam factory is running at full blast,” read a December 1928 advertisement, suggesting that the re-built, five-story facility had opened less than nine months after the fire. “Our equipment and working conditions are as modern as will be found in any manufacturing institution. . . . Halsam has always been a quality line, and we will not contend that our new modern factory will have any bearing on a better quality . . . our policy has always been to give the best . . . but we do feel that with our increased production facilities, warehouse space and ideal working conditions, we will be better able to serve our many customers and prospective customers.”
The expectation was that Halsam’s new factory would be well equipped to handle continued exciting growth in the 1930s, but as a sobering new economic reality set in, the company soon recognized that it would require more than just slick automation to maintain its gains. Clever marketing and new product development would determine whether penny-pinching American families would still give them their business.
IV. Mouse in the House
And so, just a few years into the Depression, Halsam became one of the first of many businesses to ink a licensing deal with Kay Kamen Ltd., the new merchandising contractor for the Walt Disney Company. Disney was still a struggling animation studio at the time, but Mickey Mouse was rapidly on the rise, and the use of his image on Halsam’s Mickey Mouse Safety Blocks and Mickey Mouse Dominoes (along with Minnie, Pluto, and others) played at least a small role in establishing the character’s iconic status. There was even a Halsam toy set called “Disneyland Blocks” as early as 1939, nearly two decades before the actual Disneyland theme park opened in Anaheim.
A similar bit of branding ingenuity in the ‘30s can be seen with Halsam’s entrance into the field of “toy building logs,” a genre invented and dominated by Chicago’s Lincoln Logs since the early 1920s.
As the story goes, JC Penney had approached Halsam about making a knockoff version of Lincoln Logs, which were being exclusively distributed through Montgomery Ward stores at the time. Goss and Elliott balked at the idea of copying the design, however, and instead recruited a talented Swedish engineer named Nils I. Paulson—a veteran of the Goss Printing Press Co.—to help them make their own, distinct style of stacking log; square-shaped rather than round.
Patented in 1936, Paulson’s square log design was eventually packaged alternately as Halsam’s “Frontier Logs,” “American Logs,” and “Walt Disney Early Settlers Logs,” among other names. Unlike the LEGO scenario described earlier, American Logs were certainly derivative of a more established product. But Halsam’s marketing team had identified a very specific hole in the existing marketplace. Lincoln Logs, from their inception, had never sold well in the South, where the grandkids of Confederates were still dissuaded from touching anything associated with the 16th president (namesake logs included). Thus, when Halsam’s generically patriotic “American Logs” arrived on the scene, they offered no such impediments, and sold well below the Mason-Dixon Line a result.
That was just the first of many successes for Nils Paulson, who would remain a vitally important figure in the Halsam offices for roughly three decades. Besides designing the American Logs and new machines for manufacturing them, he also led the way in the company’s logical evolution from stacking logs to stacking bricks.
In 1939, Paulson’s patent application for the “toy building brick” described the concept as such: “toy building members in the form of rectangular parallelepipedons, the sides and ends of which simulate in appearance the sides and ends of a plurality of ordinary building bricks.”
Paulson’s brick, which was still made from wood in its original manifestation, also introduced “a new and improved form and arrangement of dowels and sockets . . . whereby any two members of the set may be quickly and easily secured together in the desired relative positions, and yet may be easily separated when it is desired to tear down the structure.”
There had been a handful of inter-locking, socket-style brick toys on the market in the years just prior to this—including the rubberized Bild-O-Brik (made by the Rubber Specialties Co. of Conshohocken, Pennsylvania) and Minibrix; a British version introduced by the Premo Rubber Co. in 1935. None had gained any significant traction (pun intended), however, and the race to perfect the concept was wide open.
[Above: Nils Paulson’s, “Toy Building Brick,” U.S. Patent 2,262,199, was applied for in 1939 and registered in 1941. By contrast, Lego had just 10 employees in 1939 and didn’t start making its own bricks until 10 years later. Below: A 1940 advertisement in the Nathan Shure catalog for Halsam’s “Hi-Lo Safety Blocks” and the original pre-war, hardwood “American Bricks.”]
V. Hello Elgo
The original run of Halsam’s “American Bricks”—rolled out between 1939 and 1940—were probably more akin to the company’s dominoes than its alphabet blocks or Frontier Logs. All pieces in a set were pressed from hardwood, identical in size and shape, and equipped with a peg, socket, and slot construction—intended to replicate the actual geometry of the brick mason’s trade. From the beginning, the pieces were available in bright reds and yellows, and the full kits included decorative windows, doors, and “shingled” cardboard roofs. Compared to putting together a boring old log cabin, this would have felt like a genuinely awesome leap forward, but in fact, it was more of a hop.
The real leap came in 1941, when Nils Paulson and the Halsam team started a full-scale transition from simple hardwoods to the injected molded plastics of the nuclear age. With early successful experiments making bakelite checkers and dominoes, Goss and Elliott felt confident enough to launch a new division of the company—yup, the pioneering ELGO Plastics—with the next goal of making a plastic version of their interlocking bricks. Elgo’s first offices were located at 1801 Warner Avenue.
American Plastic Bricks were probably ready to hit the market as early as 1942, but the new priorities of wartime America shelved the project, as the Halsam plants shifted mostly into government contract work.
When Halsam and Elgo returned to full-time amusement-making after the war, Paulson and the rest of the R&D team had had plenty of time to consider exactly how a plastic brick building set ought to work. Harold Elliott, who’d lived in England during part of the 1940s while leading the UK office of the Goss Printing Press Co., also reported back on some of the popular British construction toys his son Kip (aka Harold Elliott Jr.) had enjoyed playing with while there, including the aforementioned Minibrix and a superior new entry into the genre, the Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Brick, which was made of injection-molded plastic. According to some sources, Kip Elliott himself was given an active role in the development of Elgo’s American Plastic Bricks, but in point of fact, he was just 16 years old when the toy first hit the market in 1947, so any real leadership would likely have come later.
[Full page “American Plastic Bricks by Elgo” spread from the 1956 Halsam catalog. The company gradually de-emphasized the Elgo name in relation to the product]
“Modern brick construction in its most realistic and accurate form—by Halsam,” read a Christmas-time newspaper advertisement from that year. “An ingenious building set of inter-locking pressed bricks that make miniature models in true-to-life proportions and appearance.”
Interestingly, American Plastic Bricks and Kiddicraft both debuted in ’47, but it’s usually only the latter that’s honored with the title of “predecessor to LEGO bricks,” as Wikipedia puts it. Presumably, this is because the Danish toymakers at LEGO were “influenced” by Britain’s Kiddicraft before they’d seen Chicago’s offerings. But still, if it’s not clear by now, Hal and Sam have never really gotten the credit they’re due.
VI. Sturdy and Permanent
Keeping in mind that LEGO was still a non-entity in America through the entirety of the 1950s, Elgo’s American Plastic Bricks played a far greater role than the former in introducing Baby Boomers to the concept of snapping together their own miniature plastic cities. Admittedly, Elgo promotional materials also encouraged young builders to “cement together” their creations to make them “sturdy and permanent,” suggesting these early bricks didn’t exactly lock in place reliably on their own. But still, there was plenty of fun to be had and few limitations.
“It’s simply fascinating to build modern homes, schools, stores and all sorts of other buildings with American Plastic Bricks,” piped another 1953 ad. “. . . The perfect gift for children four to twelve years and older.”
Unlike a lot of toys of the 1950s, Halsam’s bricks, blocks, and logs also catered fairly equally to boys and girls—both through traditional print advertising as well as the new medium of children’s television commercials. The American Plastic Bricks container in our museum collection is fine evidence of this unisex branding, as the artwork features both a cartoon boy and girl enjoying their own construction projects while barely tolerating each other.
Men and women co-existed in fairly equal numbers at the Halsam factory, as well, where 175 workers were on the books in 1953—many of them focused on packing and shipping, since the plastic toys virtually manufactured themselves. Back in the ’20s, the company had filled its ranks largely with German-American craftsmen from around the Ravenswood neighborhood, but like the city in general, the diversity of the staff had expanded with each subsequent decade, and a lot of training was done on the job.
By the mid ‘50s, as the next generation of Gosses and Elliotts took on larger roles with the business (specifically Samuel’s sons Sam III and Bill Goss, and Hal’s son Kip Elliott), Halsam Products really reached the peak of its powers. In a particularly symbolic move, the company purchased its original wood block rival, the Embossing Company, which became a short-lived Halsam subsidiary in 1955. Around the same time, Halsam / Elgo outgrew its longtime Ravenswood plant, moving its workforce up the road to a larger, modern, one-story complex (107,000 sq. ft.) at 3610 W. Touhy Avenue in Skokie.
[Sprawling Halsam headquarters at 3610 West Touhy Avenue in Skokie, as it looked in 1956. The plant fell into disrepair and was replaced with a shopping center in the 2010s]
While Nils Paulson was still developing exciting new construction toys like the “Skyline Series” (the first skyscraper-focused toy brick set), the ’50s really saw a lot of creative attention paid to product packaging, with vivid colors and tall, tube-style boxes, including the rectangular Club Dominoes container in our museum collection, as well as the American Plastic Bricks mega sets.
“For the first time . . . American Plastic Bricks are offered in large, durable tubes that have strong merchandising appeal,” read a 1956 sales sheet. “The spacious tubes are a display in themselves. Clearly identifying labels printed in four colors and high gloss finish easily attract the eye and demand consumer interest.”
The same 1956 sales sheet, sent out to potential Halsam Products distributors, defined the company’s mission statement fairly succinctly.
“Each product in the Halsam line must fit one definition: is it a ‘basic tool of play?’ If it is, then we have three great advantages in the highly competitive toy industry:
1. The child wants it . . . because Halsam toys fulfill children’s basic desire to build, to create.
2. The parent, who buys it, wants it . . . because the Halsam toy provides a natural, desirable outlet for children’s mental and physical energy.
3. You, the seller, want it . . . because being a basic staple toy the Halsam product maintains high volume sales year after year—all with the attractive profit structures which have made Halsam famous.”
VII. Too Cool for Playskool
During its time as a family-run business, Halsam never really altered its mission, nor did it experience a real concerning downward trend. Its old reliables—Safety Blocks, Dominoes, Checkers, and Disney tie-ins—were still going strong through the ‘50s, and the company was doing about $4 million in annual sales, with Christmas demands always turning the Skokie plant into a bustling Santa’s workshop of sorts. Harold Elliott had done well enough in life by this point that in July of 1959, his 65-foot yacht—named the Carolyn IV after his daughter—was briefly mistaken by Chicago TV crews for the Royal Barge of the visiting British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
There’s another story about a certain European visit to Chicago—at roughly this same time period—that’s been passed around through several copy/pasted Halsam histories on the internet, but doesn’t seem to have much hard evidence to substantiate it. According to this apocryphal account, there was actually a face-to-face meeting between representatives of Elgo Plastics (specifically Bill Goss) and visiting dignitaries from Denmark’s Lego Group just ahead of Lego’s entry into the U.S. market in 1961.
Lego’s new president, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen [pictured], was dead set on conquering America, and would have been very aware not only of a potential conflict with Elgo’s exisiting plastic bricks, but in the ridiculous similarity of the two company’s names. So, as legend has it, Lego agreed to pay Elgo the whopping sum of . . . $25,000 . . . to “square itself”—whatever that means—and thus storm the shores of the USA unchallenged.
Whether that meeting ever happened or not, the way things played out in the 1960s certainly opens up a yacht-load of “what if?” scenarios when it comes to Lego’s rise and Elgo’s fall.
During a hugely successful Christmas season in 1961, the Tribune was already reporting negotiations of a merger between Halsam and Playskool—another Chicago toymaking giant. And by January of 1962, the deal was done. Playskool took ownership of Halsam, Elgo, and the Embossing Company in exchange for $3 million in Playskool stock.
Samuel Goss Jr. and Hal Elliott, both having reached retirement age, took places on the Playskool board of directors. At the time, they probably felt like they’d solidified the business they’d spent the past 45 years building, metaphorically “cementing together” its ability to meet the ever-growing demands of the toy biz in the future. Obviously, it didn’t work out that way.
While Playskool continued to manufacture Halsam-branded toys out of the Touhy Avenue plant in the 1960s—including American Plastic Bricks—a series of additional buyouts complicated the arrangement. After Milton Bradley took over Playskool in 1968, Halsam manufacturing was moved under Playskool’s own roof, and holdovers like Kip Elliott and Bill Goss (who’d been working as the VP of Sales and Marketing with Playskool) eventually moved on.
By the time Playskool opened its new Chicago factory in 1973, the Halsam name was barely uttered, and “Plastic Building Bricks” were sold under the Playskool brand only. When Hasbro subsequently purchased Milton Bradley in 1984, the closure of Playskool’s Chicago facility essentially buried Hal and Sam’s legacy for good.
In 2015, in unrelated news, the Lego Group collected over $2 billion in revenue, making it the largest toy company in the world.
Goss: Proud of the Past, Committed to the Future, by Herman Kogan, 1985
“Flames Cause $100,000 Loss in Wooden Toy Factory” – Chicago Tribune, March 6, 1928
“The Halsam Line” – Playthings, December 1928
Halsam Products Catalog – 1956
Halsam Products Catalog – 1959
“An Aching Tooth Stops Queen for 20 Minutes” – Chicago Tribune, July 7, 1959
“Toy Maker to Be Bought by Playskool” – Chicago Tribune, Jan 30, 1962
Toys in America, by Marshall and Inez McClintock, 1961
“Halsam Products Co.” – All About Old Toys
“History of the Building Brick” – Imex World of Bricks
“Toy Building Brick” U.S. Patent 2262199A, Nils I. Paulson