Hilary Page (1904-1957) was a toymaker, child behaviourist and writer who pioneered the use of modern plastics in toys, founded Kiddicraft, and is nowadays most remembered for having invented what we now know as the Lego brick.
Page's father was in the lumber business and was a great influence on Hilary, with one story being that his father once bought him two tons of scrap wood for him to play with. The young Hilary naturally made lot of wooden toys, and when he was older, got into the toymaking business, first making and then importing wooden toys, including traditional Russian toys such as stacking rings and Russian nesting dolls.
A great frustration was Page's inability to find any sort of adequate way of painting wood that would resist being gnawed on by small children, and this led Page to start researching the comparatively new subject to plastics. Plastic toys (Page reckoned) could be washable, durable and hygienic, and with a sufficiently brightly-coloured plastic, wouldn't need painting. Page founded Bri-Plax as an offshoot company to make the new "sensible" toys in ~1937, and after the war, the plastic production resumed under the Kiddicraft name. Page's range of kindergarten toys were defiantly and unashamedly plastic, with a style later associated with Fisher-Price - notably brightly coloured stacking rings inspired by Page's early Russian imports.
Page set out to design children's toys scientifically, and spent time in kindergartens watching how children played. As a result of his research, he decided that it would be better if wooden toys designed for pre-schoolers were replaced by the new plastics - Children gnawed on the corners of wooden toys, ingested paint and primers, and left the toys with rough wet surfaces that bred bacteria. The new plastics allowed Page's "Sensible Toys" to be brightly coloured, non-toxic and unpainted, and they could be sterilised in boiling water without damaging them, which was useful for kindergartens and nurseries where numbers of chuildren woudl be playing with the same toys.
The origins of Lego
Page's project to replace wooden nursery toys with plastic ran into a problem when it was time to replace traditional wooden building blocks - solid plastic would be too expensive, and hollow injection-moulded blocks would be missing a lower surface, and would require some sort of locators on the top surfaces to allow them to stack properly. Page designed his cube-shaped blocks with four protrusions on the upper surface, and patented the design.
"Self-Locking Building Bricks"
As Page continued to develop the concept (patenting his developments along the way), he decided that it would be useful to have a smaller version of these stacking, interlocking blocks, but shaped roughly like UK housebricks so that older children could create model buildings using techniques used in conventional British brick-built houses.
Page developed what we now recognise as the outline of the modern Lego brick, but with slots cut in two sides to allow doorframes and other features to be slotted into openings in a wall. The system even allowed children to make their own addons from card.
The new Kiddicraft "Self-Locking Building Bricks" (1947) had an awkward name, and were targeted at a different age group to Kiddicraft's existing market, and the new toys didn't immediately do well.
Page's next move was to try to restore the company's fortunes by bringing out a massive range of hundreds of dollhouse accessories as collectable miniatures, but before the range could be completed, worries about the company's financial future got too much for Page, and in 1957 he committed suicide.
Unknown to Page, the Lego company in Denmark (who had also started out making wooden products) had acquired samples of some of his bricks from a sales rep, and were already manufacturing and distributing their own unofficial copies of Page's patented design in mainland Europe and the US. Lego later came to an arrangement with Page's daughter to make their use of the Page designs official, and then went on to improve them (adding a hollow cylinder to the undersides of the bricks to enable them to grip better).
However, Page never got to see his invention (now "the world's favourite toy") become successful.
from patent applications:
- Harry Fisher Page – 2050, 20th Avenue West, Vancouver British Columbia – June 1940
- British Plastic Toys Limited – 245, Knightsbridge, London SW7 – June 1940
- Harry Fisher Page – 30, Warham Road, Croydon, Surrey – April 1939
- Harry Hilary Fisher Page – 66 Barkston Gardens, Kensington, London SW5 – April 1944
- Hilary Page, "Playtime in the First Five Years" (amazon.co.uk) ISBN 0041360117, second edition, first edition was 1938
- Hilary Page, "Playtime in the First Five Years" (Google Books)
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