Unique Art Manufacturing Co of New Jersey was a manufacturer of tin lithographed toys, based in New York City and Newark, New Jersey. It was founded in 1914 and faded away between 1951 and 1955. Its president, Samuel Berger (not Bergman), was an inventor with at least four patents to his name, and his company was one of the few U.S. makers of tin lithographed toys in the postwar era.
There is a great deal of incorrect information floating around about the little known company, including the name of its president and founder.
The unclear origins
Unique Art’s most famous toys had the words “Since 1916” on them. However, I found a listing in a New York corporation directory dated March 1914 listing the Unique Art Manufacturing Company. It had three officers and capital holdings of $6,000. The officers’ names were Samuel Berger, president, Lazar Singer, treasurer, and Max Schlesinger, director.
It seems strange to cheat themselves out of 2 years of business. Perhaps they didn’t manufacture their first toy until 1916.
What the company did between 1916 and 1942 is unclear. I have seen some wind up tin toys attributed to them from the 1930s. But other accounts of the same toy date them to after World War II. During the war, the company had contracts to make items for the war effort. This was fairly common for toy manufacturers during that time. The company logo was a clown, named Unique Artie, juggling 6 balls that spelled out Unique.
Samuel Berger applied for two patents in the 1941 to 1943 time frame for a toy piano. He also applied for at least two patents for character toys in the 1920s and 1930s, including one in 1921.
L’il Abner and his Dogpatch Band
In 1945, that toy piano patent came to life in the form of a windup tin toy that proved popular and retains collector interest to this day. L’il Abner and Dogpatch was a popular comic that ran from 1934 to 1977 and depicted hillbilly life. Unique Art licensed the cartoon character L’il Abner, and produced a tin lithographed toy featuring characters from the syndicated comic strip. When you wound up the toy, the four characters danced and played music. Well, they acted like they played music. The sound you can hear is springs unwinding. But it’s a clever mechanical animation, especially considering it was made entirely of metal.
The toy sells for $200 to $500 today depending on its completeness and condition.
The address on the back of the L’il Abner toy was 200 Waverly Ave, Newark N.J. The site no longer stands, it appears it was demolished to make way for Newark airport. They had a showroom at 200 Fifth Avenue in New York, like most toy companies of the era.
Sometime before 1949, Unique acquired tooling for O gauge trains from Dorfan, a neighboring New Jersey company. It only used the passenger car tooling.
Unique Art introduced a line of trains around 1949. The design was similar to Marx, and Marx introduced trains to directly compete with it. I have seen reports that the two companies had once partnered with each other, acting as subcontractors and distributors for each other’s products, and Marx saw their efforts to strike out on their own as a betrayal. How much of this is true and how much is speculation, I don’t know. Unfortunately I can’t find any primary sources to corroborate any of it.
Benny the Brakeman
Unique’s 7-inch caboose featured an animated “Bernie the Brakeman” that swung from its platform when the operator or an accessory pushed a lever. The caboose also had a character waving out the window. All train cars were labeled Unique Lines with a small copy of the Unique Artie logo displayed somewhere on the car. The design was imaginative, creative, and, dare I say, unique. But maybe it was also too childlike for the 1950s, when other makers were making trains look more realistic, with the names of real railroads on them.
The caboose was also available in a cost-reduced version without Benny. That variant is more common, but considerably less valuable.
Unique produced a tin lithographed steam engine, in both electric and clockwork variants, that was mostly blue. Marx responded with its big 994 engine to compete. Unique’s engine was numbered either 742 or 1950, depending on the set it came with.
Circus set and Rock Island diesel
Unique sold a circus-themed train starting in 1950. Appropriately, it came with engine #1950. They also sold a colorful tin litho A-A Rock Island diesel, numbered 2000, full O scale size, capable of competing with Lionel. To that end, it came with an adapter to make it compatible with Lionel cars. It was really too big to look right pulling Unique’s own cars. The Rock Island set was featured in the Feb 1998 issue of Classic Toy Trains.
Marx changed its product line to compete more effectively with Unique Art, moving production of its toy typewriter overseas to undercut its price, and modernizing its train line.
Sales after 1953
I have read and heard anecdotes of their trains being for sale in St Louis, possibly is late as 1953. Whether this means some of the product remained in the retail channel after the company stopped production, production resumed under new ownership, or someone misremembered is hard to say. That said, trains were a major enough purchase in the early 1950s that kids tended to remember how old they were when they got them.
What happened to Unique Art Manufacturing Co
Unique Art went out of business around 1951, and I have seen the attributed to the difficulty competing with Marx, and also the Korean war. It could have been a combination of both. The Korean war made metal scarce, and while other toy companies were able to shift to plastic, Unique Art was not in a position to do that. A third possibility, which is purely my speculation, is that Samuel Berger was ready to retire after 35 years in business.
Marx had a lucrative distribution agreement with Sears, as well as other large and small retailers. Unique had a distribution agreement with Jewel Tea, and also with Western Auto. Those were reasonable names in the 1950s, but they didn’t have the reach Sears did.
A number of Unique Art trains turned up in the Marx archives when they were liquidated in the 1970s. Some of them had labels indicating they had been purchased for market research in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but another indicated Marx had acquired former Unique tooling. Marx never put any of it into production, but may have considered it.
The O’Mahoney merger
Around 1952, Unique Art merged with Jerry O’Mahoney, a manufacturer of prefabricated roadside diner buildings. Actual roadside diners, those nostalgia magnets that serve unhealthy short-order food your doctor says you shouldn’t be eating anymore. It seems like the last company in the world that would look to buy a toy company. But maybe O’Mahoney had ideas how they could reuse Unique’s tooling or equipment to achieve better profitability.
Unfortunately, this odd pairing didn’t have a happy ending.
Jerry O’Mahoney himself had retired in 1950, and the company’s new owners were looking for ways to expand, and went on a buying spree in 1952. But they tried to get too big too fast on borrowed money. In 1955 they reorganized, and that was the last mention I can find of the Unique Art subsidiary. O’Mahoney changed hands in 1956 and changed its name to simply Mahoney, and was out of business by 1958. If the 1955 reorganization wasn’t the end of the line for Unique Art, 1958 must have been.
What became of Samuel Berger, president of Unique Art
For that matter, I can’t track down what happened to Samuel Berger. There were other notable individuals by the same name in the same timeframe in and around New York and New Jersey. And I found over 1,800 individuals by that name in the 1940 census just in New York. I was not able to find an obituary for any individual by that name that mentioned Unique Art. I found one obituary whose dates and time make sense, but since it didn’t mention what he did for a living, I don’t know if it was the right person.
Samuel I. Berger, founder and president of Unique Art and holder of four patents, faded into history.
The challenge of small companies
Small companies have a tendency not to leave much trace of themselves. The information we can gather from them tends to come from the packaging their products came in, obituaries of their employees, and court documents.
I was able to locate obituaries for other individuals who had 20-year careers there. But the small number points to it being a small company.