Note: Thanks to our museum photographer, Bo Williams, for filming Paul’s Blue Ox in action.

When cataloging an artifact, many aspects of it can be extremely helpful in determining how it was used, where it came from, and the date range of manufacture and/or use. A family history of that artifact can fill in many of those blanks. Artifacts that are stamped with company information, and, in some cases, a patent number, can give us a very specific date range to go from. However, when that patent number does not match a patent resembling the artifact in question, it becomes even more challenging to figure out a date. Such was the case with a recent donation from the Patricia Laird Vaughan estate of “Paul’s Blue Ox,” a toy made by Multipl-aktion Toy Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Paul’s Blue Ox is a “ball-actuated” toy:  marbles roll down the back of the ox until a lumberjack type figure rises up, knocks the marble off of between the ox’s horns, and dumps it on the tray at the bottom of the toy. Paul’s Blue Ox came to us in its original box. Printed on the box is patent number 1791217. A patent search on the internet linked that number to a European patent for female and male connector circuitry, not for a toy from the 1940s (that date was my educated guess).

Next I turned to a web search to find information about the Multipl-aktion Toy Company. The search engine kept trying to tell me the company name was “Multiple-Action” Toy Company, which was not the name I was looking for. I was able to find one web listing for the toy with the same patent number which dated the toy as 1931 but yielded no other new information. I also located an entry in the 1944 Minneapolis city directory for the “Multipl Aktion Toy Company” with salesmen David Ackerberg and Sidney Rivkin listed as company officers.

With nothing to show for my sleuthing but limited bits of information on the Blue Ox, I reluctantly moved on to another artifact from the same donor—a toy xylophone. The xylophone’s patent numbers proved quite helpful, and the numbers started with a “US” prefix. I finished cataloging the xylophone, then, on a whim, I went back to the Blue Ox patents. I decided to try the patent search again, this time adding “US” to the patent number. This led me to a 1929 patent for a liquid-vending machine issued to Sidney L. Long of Minneapolis, Minnesota—same location as the Multipl-aktion Toy Company, but the time period was a bit early and the patent was not for a Blue Ox toy.

I delved deeper into the other patents submitted by Sidney L. Long, and there, finally, I found a ball-actuated toy, patent number 2434571, filed August 29, 1945. That patent is for a toy that looks almost identical to the Blue Ox.

Even though an erroneous patent number led to several dead ends, it still provided valuable information for finally tracking down the correct patent for Paul’s Blue Ox.

Aaron Loehndorf is the Shiloh Museum’s collections and education specialist.