Vintage puzzle games that make you wanna holler
  • Black child, 1919 Cream of Wheat ad, no watermelon?
  • Black child images on playing cards
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    Auction Finds

    1968 inlay puzzle of a black child drawn as his natural self

    The images of the African American boy were partly hidden beneath a black cloth doll on the auction table. I immediately moved the doll aside so I could get a closer look at the images on the board.

    The child had been drawn as he would naturally appear as a person, much unlike most of the early-20th century images I usually see at auction, especially the cast-iron remakes of black children as alligator bait.

    This little boy was sweetly different. The drawings showed a progression of the child from baby boy to toddler to grade-schooler. The trek even ended on a hopeful note: He was walking hand in hand into school with a white boy.

    The Judy Company puzzle

    An African American baby grows into a little boy in this 1968 Judy Company puzzle.

    I instinctively looked for a publication date on the drawings, since the images and message were so positive. “Copyright 1968 by the Judy Company. See-Quees by Judy.” It was produced near the tail-end of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, after African Americans had fought hard to be treated as citizens and accepted themselves with pride.

    I still wasn’t sure what the board was, though, but I knew that I wanted this cute little boy. Googling, I found that the board was actually a child’s inlay puzzle made by a Minneapolis company that had been around since 1937, according to a website created by the great-grandson of the founders Hymie and Ruth Berman. The company was named after their daughter Judy who had bought a 50-cent toy that Berman was sure he could do better.

    He built a wooden hollow block that caught the eye of his friends who wanted one for their children. The company grew out of a small building into a larger operation and began making jigsaw puzzles, which became its major product. Berman invented the Judy clock in 1951 that was used in elementary schools to teach children how to tell time.

    Judy company puzzle

    The puzzle with the little black boy was a See-Quees made by the Judy Company.

    The couple sold the company in 1968, and it apparently was purchased by Judy/Instructio that still makes puzzles and the clock. Hymie died in 2007 at age 97.

    Ebony magazine mentioned the company and its educational puzzles in an article about toy trends in 1980. It noted that the puzzles featured black people (I found one with an image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., dated 1975, and other regular black folks).

    The company made an array of puzzles, including Minnie Mouse, alphabets, librarian, milkman, teacher, occupations. Some were made of board and others of wood. On eBay, I came across a wooden version of the puzzle at auction. It was titled “Johnny Growing,” and was said to be dated 1956.

    Little Black Sambo puzzle

    Little Black Sambo puzzle by the Judy Company. Photo from AntiqueAddictions on etsy.com.

    The company also made a Little Black Sambo puzzle that was a far cry from the earliest versions of the child (there apparently is no date on that puzzle). You can only see his back, but he appears to be painted normally, in much the same way as Julius Lester and James Pinkney did in their 1996 book “Sam and the Tigers.”

    The puzzle at auction was a See-Quees, which uses a comic strip format to tell a story, according to a sales sheet on the Judy website. Made for 4-8 year-olds, these were silkscreen images on heavy board that were die-cut into 3-inch inlay squares. You could also buy a case to store them.

    When the puzzle came up for sale at auction, I wasn’t the only one interested. Another bidder, who seems to specialize in black memorabilia and had bought most of the stereotypical Black Americana items auctioned earlier, went toe-to-toe with me for a while, but soon backed off. I won both the puzzle and the doll.

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