We’ve all been children before. We’ve all had toys that we loved when we were little. I know I did and I still have many of my favorite toys in storage in my childhood bedroom. What if you never stopped loving toys? What if collecting toys became a passion of yours well into your adulthood? Then you would find yourself in the incredible company of Ralph Tomlinson. Tomlinson turned toy collecting into a lifestyle with over two thousand Victorian and early-20th century playthings. His collection includes pedal riding toys, mechanical toys, image projectors, clockwork vehicles, construction sets, battery-operated toys, friction vehicles, push and pull toys, farm toys, circus toys, military figures, steam engines, and train sets.

Ralph L. Tomlinson was a member of Chapman’s Board of Governors as well as a member of the Leatherby Libraries Board. As a donation to the university, he donated over 100 pieces of his collection to the library in 2008. In addition to the collection, he also donated several custom-made cabinets to display the collection. With his generous donation, the exhibit “Learning through Play,” located on the 3rd floor of the Leatherby Libraries in the Edgar and Libby Pankey Library of Education, was born as a tribute to Tomlinson’s passion. What makes this exhibit so fascinating is how much Ralph’s passion for preserving and collecting toys shines.

Bicycle, circa 1920

Ralph’s love for toy collecting was sparked when he was 15 years old. For Christmas that year, his parents gave him only clothes. The absence of toys for Christmas stuck with Ralph and from that point on, his desire to collect toys only grew. An antique toy consultant for the Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses, Jack Herbet, has said that Tomlinson’s collection was one of the best collections on the West Coast.

“Toys are a historical panorama of where we’ve been. Whenever we made a move in technology, a toy came out in miniature. From planes, trains, to a taxi cab.” Jack Herbet said.

“Jo” Bethel at age 14 in 1926 with the bicycle displayed in the collection.

The collection in the library captures moments in history. One item that stands out to me is a 1920s bicycle in pristine condition. Hung beside the bicycle is a photo taken of a little girl with the exact bike. While looking at the photo, I realized that the bicycle had once belonged to that little girl. Then I looked around and had the realization that all of these toys, at one point, were played with by children of the past. Each era, new toys were created and with every new invention, children played with them. The toys aren’t just pieces of wood and tin. They are memories of childhood and a time capsule of the era they were produced.

When I was younger, my favorite toys were miniature animals. I was obsessed with the story of Noah’s Ark and how Noah built a boat and all the animals boarded it. I had hundreds of animal toys that are still under my bed back home. In the display cases in the library, there are two elephant toys made of metal with leather ears and movable joints. These two toys are my favorite in the collection. They are simple and a part of a larger collection of circus toys. Something is captivating about them though. Maybe it’s the fact that I have a soft spot for animal toys and elephants are my favorite animals. No matter who you are, Ralph’s toy collection will have a toy that speaks to you.

My uncle collected antique toys, specifically trains, and he had them on display in his house. His entire attic was a miniature town with dozens of trains speeding along train tracks. If he were alive and able to visit the toy collection, he would be fascinated by the handful of toy trains that are a part of the collection. The interesting thing about toys is that they are a vessel for our imagination and displaying them shows the possibilities that the human mind has to create anything. Tomlinson’s toy collection resonates with me because toys remind me of childhood and it’s nice to be reminded of those times. “Learning through Play” is a charming exhibit in the library and I highly recommend anyone to visit it. Maybe you’ll even find a toy that captivates you!

One of the custom-made shelves that displays a portion of the collection.