What is the oldest toy company in the world?

What is the oldest toy company in the world?

The history of toys is as old as civilization itself, reflecting the cultural and societal shifts over millennia. Among the numerous toy companies that have existed, one stands out for its remarkable longevity and impact on the toy industry: F.A.O. Schwarz. Established in 1862, F.A.O. Schwarz is widely recognized as the oldest toy store in the United States and one of the oldest toy companies in the world. This essay delves into the rich history, evolution, and legacy of F.A.O. Schwarz, tracing its journey from a single store in Baltimore to a globally recognized brand synonymous with luxury, quality, and wonder.

Early Beginnings

Founding and Early Years

Frederick August Otto Schwarz, a German immigrant, founded F.A.O. Schwarz in 1862. Schwarz opened his first store in Baltimore, Maryland, selling "toys, fancy goods, and children's books." From the beginning, Schwarz was committed to providing high-quality and unique toys, which set his store apart from competitors. His emphasis on European craftsmanship and innovative toys attracted a wealthy clientele, establishing a reputation for excellence that would become the company's hallmark.

Expansion to New York

In 1870, Schwarz moved his business to New York City, recognizing the greater opportunities in America's burgeoning metropolis. He opened "Toy Bazaar" on Broadway, which quickly became a popular destination for New Yorkers. The store's success was fueled by its diverse inventory, featuring toys from around the world, including Europe and Asia, which were not commonly available in the United States at the time.

Innovative Marketing and Store Experience

F.A.O. Schwarz's approach to retail was revolutionary. Schwarz understood that the experience of shopping for toys could be as magical as the toys themselves. The store was designed to be a wonderland, with elaborate displays and interactive demonstrations that captivated both children and adults. Schwarz was also a pioneer in marketing, using catalogs and direct mail to reach customers nationwide, thereby expanding his market beyond New York City.

Growth and Development

Turn of the Century

By the early 20th century, F.A.O. Schwarz had firmly established itself as a premier destination for toys. The store continued to innovate, introducing many firsts in the toy industry. For example, F.A.O. Schwarz was among the first retailers to offer electric trains, and it played a significant role in popularizing teddy bears in the United States.

Family Business

The company remained a family business, with Schwarz's descendants continuing to run the store after his death. This continuity helped preserve the company's original vision and values. The Schwarz family maintained close relationships with European manufacturers, ensuring that F.A.O. Schwarz always had access to the latest and most innovative toys.

Great Depression and World Wars

The economic challenges of the Great Depression and the disruptions of the World Wars were significant tests for the company. However, F.A.O. Schwarz's focus on quality and unique products helped it survive these difficult periods. During World War II, the company adapted to the constraints of the time, focusing on domestic manufacturing and maintaining its reputation for excellence.

Iconic Status and Cultural Impact

Post-War Era and Cultural Icon

The post-war era saw F.A.O. Schwarz solidify its status as a cultural icon. The store's flagship location at 745 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, opened in 1931, became a landmark. The grandeur of the store, with its elaborate window displays and vast selection of toys, attracted visitors from around the world.

Celebrity Endorsements and Media Appearances

F.A.O. Schwarz's reputation was further enhanced by its association with celebrities and its frequent appearances in movies and television shows. The store's iconic piano, featured in the 1988 film "Big," where Tom Hanks famously danced on the keys, became a symbol of the store's magical appeal.

Holiday Season Destination

The holiday season was particularly significant for F.A.O. Schwarz. The store's Christmas catalog was eagerly anticipated, and its elaborate holiday displays and in-store events became traditions for many families. The store was a must-visit destination for those seeking the perfect Christmas gifts, often featuring exclusive and limited-edition items.

Challenges and Changes

Ownership Changes and Financial Challenges

Despite its iconic status, F.A.O. Schwarz faced numerous challenges, particularly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The toy industry underwent significant changes, with increased competition from big-box retailers and the rise of e-commerce. F.A.O. Schwarz struggled to compete on price with these larger retailers.

The company changed ownership several times, each transition bringing different strategies and visions for the brand. In 1986, F.A.O. Schwarz was acquired by the Christiana Companies, and later, in 2001, by Royal Vendex KBB, a Dutch retail group. In 2004, it was sold to D.E. Shaw & Co., a hedge fund, and subsequently to Toys "R" Us in 2009.

Closure and Rebirth

In 2015, financial difficulties led to the closure of the flagship Fifth Avenue store, a move that was met with widespread disappointment. However, this was not the end of F.A.O. Schwarz. Recognizing the enduring appeal of the brand, ThreeSixty Group, a product development and brand management firm, acquired F.A.O. Schwarz in 2016. In 2018, the company celebrated a triumphant return with the opening of a new flagship store at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Legacy and Continuing Impact

Enduring Appeal

F.A.O. Schwarz's legacy is defined by its commitment to quality, innovation, and the magical experience of toy shopping. The brand's emphasis on creating memorable experiences for children and families has left an indelible mark on the retail industry.

Global Presence

Today, F.A.O. Schwarz continues to expand its global presence, with stores in various countries and a significant online presence. The brand remains synonymous with luxury and wonder, offering a curated selection of high-quality toys from around the world.

Cultural Icon

F.A.O. Schwarz's influence extends beyond retail. The brand is deeply embedded in popular culture, symbolizing the joy and wonder of childhood. Its association with iconic moments in film and television, as well as its role in family traditions, underscores its unique place in the hearts of many.


F.A.O. Schwarz's journey from a single store in Baltimore to a globally recognized brand is a testament to its enduring appeal and adaptability. Despite the challenges of changing market dynamics and ownership transitions, F.A.O. Schwarz has remained true to its founding principles of quality, innovation, and creating magical experiences for its customers. As the oldest toy company in the United States and one of the oldest in the world, F.A.O. Schwarz's legacy continues to inspire and delight generations of children and adults alike. Its story is a remarkable chapter in the history of toys, reflecting the timeless joy and wonder that toys bring to our lives.

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