On Christmas Day, we were visiting with my son and his wife. While we were there, he gave me the box of ornaments you see above. Mutual friends, whose son works with my son, passed along this box of ornaments, which had belonged to one of their parents, knowing of our interest in all things Youngstown (yes, we are getting a reputation!).
So I thought I would look into the history of The Christmas Tree Twinkler (or as some people call them, spinners). In the process, I found a fascinating account of the man who invented it, the Plakie Toy Company in Youngstown who manufactured it, and the Hoover family who started the company which lasted until 1992.
John Garver grew up on a farm outside Youngstown, learning to tinker as he had to repair farm implements. After college in Indiana, he returned to teach at Boardman High School. He continued to tinker. Eventually he had ten patents to his name including the patent for The Christmas Tree Twinkler (you can see his patent drawings in this Popular Mechanics article). He created the dual brake pedal used in driver training vehicles and machines that could throw tennis balls, footballs, and baseballs (he even wrote a book on baseball cybernetics).
The Twinkler was a simple idea: mount a spinner on a pin inside a hollow plastic cylinder within a decorative birdcage or star. Place it above a Christmas tree light (one of the old C7 lights that generated a bit of heat) and the heat would set the spinner in motion, hence the twinkling. The idea for the star apparently came from his wife, who was cutting star cookies and suggested putting a spinner in the middle. He patented it in 1954, took it to one of his classes, and mentioned that he was interested in marketing his invention.
It turns out that one of his students was Dean Hoover, son of Frank and Dorothy Hoover, who had a toy company called Plakie Toys based in Youngstown. In 1932, Frank Hoover returned to Youngstown after a stint of working in steel plants in Detroit. He started out manufacturing custom gearshift nobs for manual transmissions. By 1935, his business began to struggle with the rise of the automatic transmission. By then he had married and had an infant son Dean. One day, he spotted his infant son having a great time shaking some plastic squares strung on a chain, and the idea for a plastic toy company was born. The company name, Plakie, came from “play key.” During the war, they diverted to wood toys because plastic was scarce. Right after the war, his father purchased one of the first blow mold machines in the world, and the business was off and running.
So Plakie was a natural fit for manufacturing John Garver’s invention. They began selling them at Strouss, selling as many as 1,000 in a day. Eventually they were manufacturing over three million of them a year. They had a few problems. The biggest was that if the ornaments were too close to the lights, the plastic would melt (it is kind of amazing in light of this to receive a full intact set!). There were problems with the machine that cut the pins, which were sometimes dull, preventing the spinner from twirling.
The big problem was the advent of artificial trees, which could be flammable. Cooler midget lights were invented, but they did not get hot enough to make the spinners move. Still, it is estimated that there could be as many as ten million of these still out there, probably stashed away in attics. They are a collectible and I found them selling online for anything between $15 and $50.
Frank Hoover died in 1960. Dorothy took over the company at that time and shifted the focus of the company to cloth products for children–blankets, crib sheets, cloth toys, cloth covered book, dolls, and dust ruffles. The companies sales grew to $4 million a year during this time. Eventually production costs and competition led the company to close its doors in 1992.
John Garver lived until 2015. He actually kept working on a Twinkler design using anodized aluminum until his death in 2015.
I don’t remember these ornaments from my childhood. I would have been fascinated back then, and I delight in their designs even now. They are one more point of Youngstown pride–both invented and manufactured in the Mahoning Valley.