The Visible Man–who remembers that? But can you recall the name of the company that made it?
The Renwal Company didn’t start out in the anatomy/ scientific/ educational toy biz. In fact, Renwal started in housewares, then made doll furniture from the end of WW2 till the late 1950s, then they sold their dies so that other companies made the same doll furniture.
If you’re a Boomer girl, chances are you remember, very distantly, some of these toys.
But Renwal is most famous for the Visible Man in 1959, followed by the Visible Woman and the hottest seller, the Visible V-8 Engine.
And like me, you will probably read the name a dozen times before your mind stopped saying “Renewal.” It’s Renwal–which is the founder’s name spelled backwards. Irving Lawner.
Lawner set up his company in 1939 to distribute housewares like a glass knife. Within months, he sold the firm to two of his salesmen, and they exhibited Renwal’s line at the New York World’s Fair. War-time production took over for a bit, but by the end of 1944 Renwal was dabbling in plastics and producing toys.
Planes and doll houses. That was their schtick. I’ve learned a lot about them from a book called Renwal: Wold’s Finest Toys by Charles Donovan, Jr. Amazon doesn’t even stock it–the book has become as collectible as Boomer doll house furniture. And while the book has an eight-page history on the company, it’s pretty clear where the author’s interest lays. The entire book is about doll furniture. Not one picture of toy planes or the Visible line.
I hope Mr. Donovan doesn’t mind that I scanned a couple of his pictures for my blog. The bathroom set above came out in 1949 but it sure looks like something I had a few years later. Much of the furniture is quite amazing for little plastic replicas–a Philco-style radio, for example, or wooden cabinets and hutches. The beds above show the balance between plastic pastels and intricate detail.
Jovine was quite a character. An Italian by birth, he was captured in North Africa during WW2 and shipped to the USA as a POW. He fell in love with an American woman who played the piano to entertain the prisoners (must’ve been a nice camp). So when Jovine was released and sent back to Italy at the end of WW2, he came back as soon as he could and rejoined his sweetheart. The two were married, started having babies, and Jovine designed toys to pay the bills.
I think he loved it. His obituary in the NY Times says he once draped a wet towel over his face (the weather was hot and muggy) and decided he looked like a pirate. That led to a whole pirate crew on a toy Jolly Roger, one of his big successes.
When Jovine was designing for Renwal, the company had been sold again–this time to its top execs. One of them, L. S. Wetzel, recalled telling Jovine to go to museums and get some ideas for educational toys. That’s what led to the Visible Man.
And after? Jovine went into sculpture and designed commemorative coins and medals–including the 1980 Olympic medals. This picture accompanied his 2003 obituary in the American Numismatic Society Magazine, where he’s noted as a “recipient of the ANS J. Sanford Saltus Award for Signal Achievement in the Art of the Medal.”
The Visible Man was brought out with great fanfare. In fact, in the summer of 1959, Renwal took out a couple of full-page ads in the NY Times to announce the new plastic model, telling parents that they owed it to their children to buy this toy. Yes, owed it to them! But at a price under five dollars, it wasn’t a heavy debt to pay.
In those days, there was no question that the Visible Man was unsexed. Later, the Visible Woman came with a “Miracle of Birth” feature that had separate packaging and could be removed if parents found the concept . . . or conception . . . offensive.
The way all these toys worked was that you could remove and put back all the human innards. A booklet explained it all. And while not all stores carried the Visible Man and Woman–some found it distasteful–enough did that Renwal had trouble keeping up with demand for the first few years. (This photo is from the Smithosonian website).
The most popular Visible toy of all was the V-8 Engine. After that, there were Visible animals and airplane engines, but Renwal hit hard times. The company was sold again and again, and folded in 1976.
As for the doll house furniture, Renwal began selling off many of the die molds for those in the late 1950s, and some molds ended up overseas, used by companies that produced cheaper furniture without even rubbing out the original Renwal name from the mold.