The RIBA is well known for the breadth of its collections. However, less widely appreciated is that we have also collected certain fun and ephemeral items such as architectural toys, in particular building blocks. It is not difficult to imagine what role these and other famous constructional toys, such as Lego and Meccano, might have had in developing creativity amongst architects, engineers and scientists. Indeed no less an architect than Frank Lloyd Wright attributed his childhood interest in geometry to German educator Friedrich Fröbel’s ‘gifts’, an educational toy dating from the 1830s that included geometric blocks.
One of the most popular and well-known constructional toys were Richter’s Anker-Steinbaukasten or Anchor Stone Building sets. They were invented in 1875 by brothers Gustav and Otto Lilienthal but had limited success until 1880 when the German industrialist, Friedrich Richter, bought the patent. Unlike most constructional toys of that era traditionally which were made from wood, the sets were comprised of artificial stone blocks which relied on gravity and their mass for stability. The blocks were composed of chalk, sand and a linseed oil varnish colouring them in three basic colours: cream to represent limestone; red to represent brick and blue to represent slate.
Each set of stackable blocks was accompanied by instructional plans and designs indicating the blocks required for each stage as in this example illustrating designs for a bridge and two alternative gateways in a Roman setting. Given the slogan "Of absorbing interest for children and adults", it was a toy for everyone with literally thousands of block types and hundreds of different sets to collect including ‘The Bungalow Box’ and ‘The Suburban Box’ for the United States market featuring American suburban architecture. The largest set available contained nearly 4000 block and weighed over 80kg! Production in Rudolstadt, East Germany ended in 1963 but such was the enduring popularity of Anchor Blocks that production re-started in the 1990s and continues today.
By the early 20th century the world of construction toys was dominated by German manufacturers, in particular Richter’s Anchor Blocks. However, in 1917 British toy manufacturer Ernest Lott launched his own set of bricks, Lott’s Bricks, designed by the Art & Crafts architect Arnold Mitchell. Due to both anti-German sentiments and lack of imports due to the Great War Lott’s Bricks replaced Anchor Blocks in popularity. The success of Lott’s bricks was reportedly sealed when Queen Mary bought a set of the bricks from Lott when he exhibited them at the British Industries Fair in 1917.
Compared to Anchor Blocks the sets were much simpler and more ‘British’ in outline. The stone bricks came in uniform rectangular and wedge shapes with cardboard roofs and can be used to create a variety of buildings including, for example, this four-gabled Art & Crafts cottage based on Mitchell’s award winning ‘Ideal Home’ competition at the 1908 Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition. By the late 1930s in a concession to modernity one could now purchase ‘Lott’s New Series Bricks’ which even allowed the ability to construct modern houses with sun trap windows.
For other related items see also: toy shops, toys, nurseries and playrooms and Sir Edwin Lutyen’s designs for Queen Mary's Dolls' House. All of the images are available to download, purchase or license.
Feature by Jonathan Makepeace with thanks to Catriona Cornelius and Luke Walsh.