Frank E. Kidd.
Frank E. Kidd

Kidd's Toy Museum

Field review by the editors.

Portland, Oregon

A museum of toys. It has to be all candy-sweet charm and rainbow-colored smiles, a sunshiny place to take little children, right?

You apparently haven't been to Kidd's Toy Museum.

Its exterior is a metal door with a peephole, smack in the middle of a windowless industrial building. Kidd's Toy Museum does not advertise, and its lone sign is a sheet of paper taped to the door. At its bottom is written, "Please Knock."

If someone lets you in, the first thing that you'll see is shelf after shelf of antique, cast iron mechanical banks. Many toy banks are variants of the same shocking image: a grotesque caricature of a grinning African-American, arm extended, hand open. Put a coin in the palm, press a lever, and the arm flips the coin into the mouth as the tongue extends and the eyes roll back. A stark yet well-labeled exhibit on historical racism? Not exactly....

Jonah and the Whale.
Jonah and the Whale.

The man who collected these toys is Frank E. Kidd. Frank owns the auto parts warehouse that occupies the rest of the building. If Frank happens to be around, he's pleased to explain his collection to people who stop by. It's fortunate that he's around a lot, since he has thousands of toys, and nothing in the museum is identified with signs.

Frank is proud of his mechanical banks, probably the most complete collection on display anywhere. Frank said that their offensiveness is an unfortunate byproduct of modern times, and that "these things aren't racist." He admits that most people disagree with him. The items are "historically correct. It's just that they're 130 years old."

Charlie McCarthy

To demonstrate that antique banks were equal opportunity offenders, Frank showed us one named Cheap Labor Hotel. Put a coin on the little table in front of the Chinese man, and it flips over to reveal a rat on a tray with the message, "Dinner is Ready."

(Wait, isnt that yet another minority caricatured by the toy makers of yore?)

Frank has plenty of non-racist banks, though these go for their own stereotyped guffaws-at-the-expense-of-others: friars, policemen, Shriners, clowns. A dentist extracts a bloody tooth, a whale swallows Jonah. One bank features children peeping at a bathing woman; we asked Frank if it was rare. "No," he said, "I've got about 150 of them."

Shot in the throat.
Toy soldier - shot in the throat.

Frank is a tenacious collector ("You buy or you die.") and he has many, many more toys than he has room to display. "Oh yeah," he said. "I got 'em in 500 18-gallon plastic tubs, and about 14 four-by-four pallets."

The museum winds through several rooms filled with early 20th century toys, games, and childhood trinkets that are only occasionally as disturbing as the mechanical banks. There are crude approximations of trucks, police cars, and Mickey Mouse; tin toys of forgotten stars such as Mortimer Snerd and the Katzenjammer Kids; oddities such as a Zeppelin made from an Erector set and a cast iron Popeye on a Harley. Ranks of tiny metal soldiers are occasionally detailed with fatal wounds and other embellishments not seen in modern toy phalanxes.

Frank knows all the details, such as what each toy is made of, where it came from, when it was made, whether or not it's a fake (sometimes fakes are more valuable than the originals, he said). His wife collects toys as well; they're also on display: shelves packed with Kewpie Dolls, Winnie the Poohs, Shirley Temples, Smokey Bears, and a German dollhouse with running water in the sink and shower. There's an entire case filled with railroad padlocks -- which aren't toys, but Frank likes them anyway. We asked if Frank could estimate the number of locks in the case, but he knew exactly: 732.

Mouse orchestra.

The museum's toy time line peters out around 1939, when Frank was a kid and before the Plastic Age. Probably no one under the age of 80 has ever played with any of the toys, or could explain why children once found such toys entertaining. Even fewer people are alive who might have put money into one of the mechanical banks, and it's unlikely that any of them will be knocking on the door of Kidd's Toy Museum.

Frank doesn't seem to mind. "Do you think I'm crazy?" he asked. "I think I'm crazy. But I'm having a lot of fun." He may have created an Island of Misfit, Offensive, and Occasionally Nightmarish Toys, but they make Frank Kidd happy.

Kidd's Toy Museum

Address:
1301 SE Grand Ave., Portland, OR
Directions:
Unmarked building on SE Grand Ave., a one way street north. The door to the museum is on the west side of the street, just south of SE Main St.
Hours:
M-Th noon-6 pm, F 1-6 pm. (Call to verify)
Phone:
503-233-7807
Admission:
Free, donations accepted.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
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