ne of the greatest space toy lines of all time was created by the Archer Plastics Company of New York in 1952. Founded by a tool and die maker and mechanical engineer named Bob Genin, Archer Plastics designed fantastic space men, rocket cars, and space port playsets that have an Art Deco and Streamline Moderne sensibility about them. While we admire these toys today for their artistic quality, children back in the 1950s simply loved them for the imaginative possibilities they presented.
I've posted before
about my Archer Space Men, including a complete set
still in its original store counter display box. But the pinnacle of the Archer space toys, its tin litho Space Port from the Outer Space Set, eluded me...until recently. Presenting the finest tin litho space playset ever created, now residing happily on my dining room table after a brutal eBay battle:
The Space Port is made of lithographed tin, and measures 15 inches wide. It includes a control tower with an antenna and radar dish, and originally came boxed with a space car, a handful of space men, and a plastic rocket just like the one depicted on the front panel. The rocket cars and space ships now parked atop the port are not original to this set, but were made in the same time period and are perfectly at home.
There were many tin litho space port playsets produced by various companies in the 1950s, but the Archer set stands out because of its artwork. The Deco and Moderne inspired buildings look architecturally plausible, somehow familiar and yet futuristic. It is the space men populating the port, however, that are really remarkable. Fully realized characters, they have tremendous expression, and appear to be part of a story that the viewer is expected to piece together. All in all, the art creates a great springboard for the imaginations of the children who first saw it over 60 years ago. Let's take a closer look.
Here are some views of the tower, where space traffic controllers appear to be hard at work, directing takeoffs and landings to and from distant worlds.
Looking down at the Space Port from above, you can see into the rocket bay, where mechanics are busily preparing a ship for launch. (You're not really looking "into" anything: this is just a particularly effective illustration on the flat tin surface.)
This panel lifts up, revealing a rocket gantry that the plastic ship could be "launched" from. This is the only moving feature of the playset; the rest is powered purely by imagination.
Since my playset is missing its original Archer rocket (a common state of affairs, as the rockets were invariably taken away for outdoor play, lost off rooftops, etc.) I've added a fleet of space ships made in the 1950s by companies like Premier and Gilmark. These vehicles are fascinating for the way in which their design influences, the futuristic automobiles of the late 1940s and early 1950s, can sometimes be seen. Look closely and you'll see what appears to be the cab of a 1940s sedan melded to side rockets in the blue spaceships, for example.
On the Space Port's side panels, workers can be seen laboring at fantastic machinery which keeps the station running.
|The man on the ladder at far left appears to have noticed us. |
He is looking out from the illustration as if he sees the child at play,
an interesting technique for drawing the viewer into the imaginary world depicted on the panel.
|The man on the right has a mischievous expression plainly evident on his face.|
Is he a saboteur? Or merely clowning around, to the distress of his partner on the left,
who casts an annoyed glance in his direction?
On the back panel, three space men are having a conversation in front of a large viewing window. Two of the space men appear angry, while the third bows his head in resignation. Perhaps the report he has in his hand (interestingly, on a paper scroll) describes how his department is behind schedule or over budget.
|"It's not my fault the project is over budget, sir: talk to Jones here!|
He's got the report."
The characters in the Space Port's artwork are clearly modelled on the original Archer space figures. Here, you can see a figure next to his one-dimensional counterpart, wearing the same helmet and suit.
|My Archer space figures are pleased to have their port back. |