Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Long before college dropouts like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg made it big and became household names, there were the Squier sisters from Battle Creek, who founded a successful business in 1918 at their home at 18 Fremont Street after attending the University of California – Berkeley for one year.
The business established by twin sisters Bernice and Blanche Squier was known as Twinzy Toys and for more than five years, Ken Faris, who lives in the Historic Northside Neighborhoods which includes Fremont, has been spending the little free time he has trying to re-establish the business. Faris’ day job is a Management Consultant with Accenture Interactive. He added the title of Chief Executive Officer and re-founder of Twinzy Toys after seeing a plaque of a Twinzy doll at Quaker Park, the location for a tag factory owned by the father of the Squier sisters where the dolls were first made.
The original dolls were made out of cotton that was cut into patterns and stuffed. They were then decorated to represent different character toys made by the sisters and their employees.
“As one might expect, as a part-time startup venture this one goes in fits and starts when I have time,” Faris says. “I have attempted to drive sales through Facebook marketing and have branded our own website as twinzytoys.com. You can consult multibillion-dollar organizations on how to do this stuff, but doing it on your own is a different story.
“It takes a lot of time and effort to do it really well and consistently. I still believe in the product and the story behind it.”
The story, which has been documented by the Historical Society of Battle Creek, goes something like this: Shortly after the twins graduated from high school, a southern friend sent them a “stocking doll.” The doll was novel, “different and attractive.” When they discovered there were none like it to be had in Battle Creek, they decided to make some. Their father allowed them to use a small room on the second floor of his tag factory, located at 151 Fremont Street.
They took the first dolls – the “Buddy” doll – to the former Robinson’s department store in downtown Battle Creek, where they sold well. Then they took dolls to a large department store in Grand Rapids, where they also sold well. Rather than adding stores one or two at a time, the Twins printed up 1,000 circulars at the tag factory and sent them to stores that sold playthings. They didn’t get 1,000 orders in return, but they did get enough that they had to hire some workers to help them fill the orders.
Mary Butler, Archivist Emerita for the Historical Society, said, “the legend is that the twins decided they wanted to attend college at the University of California-Berkeley. I am sure this is what actually happened.”
They bet their father that they could earn the money to pay for college by making and selling the dolls. Thanks to the popularity of the Buddy doll and their winning business strategy, they succeeded. While at Berkeley, they continued to receive requests for their dolls.
Butler says the sisters recognized that they could make money with their dolls, so they left Berkeley and returned to Battle Creek to establish the toy company, which formally began in 1918.
In 1920 they exhibited at the Chicago Toy Fair and received their first U.S. patent. Seven years later, they exhibited at the New York Toy Fair. Archival information states that the twins were surprised to find that nearly every other toy factory was represented by men, which worked to their advantage because the received a lot more attention.
They opened an office in New York City and by 1935 Twinzy Toys were being sold in 46 states. Prior to World War II, more than 40 varieties of Twinzy Toys were being sold with names like Jerry Giraffe, Emma Elephant and General Maude, an Army mule sold exclusively at West Point.
An article which appeared in the Battle Creek Enquirer
in the mid- to late-1940’s said that “While some toy manufacturers work only for the Christmas market, Twinzy Toys have a year-round demand and their output in January is almost as great as it is in December.”
This demand was also the reason given for not seeking opportunities to work in foreign markets.
The sisters never married and together raised a nephew in their Fremont Street house. Blanche passed away in 1950 in Battle Creek after battling cancer. Bernice continued running the business for another decade before closing it down in 1961. She passed away seven years later.
The Squier sisters were way ahead of their time, Butler says.
“There were very few female entrepreneurs in this era and they simply said we’re going to do it and they did,” Butler says. “This is a story a lot of people don’t know.”
“They came back after one year at Berkeley. They ran a successful business for 40 years that had accounts with major department stores like Hudson’s and Macy’s and they did custom dolls for the military,” Faris says. “After Bernice passed, it just sort of faded away.”
Their legacy came to Butler’s attention in 1991. She was doing a door-to-door survey for the Historic District Commission that brought her to the door of the original home of the Squier sisters and their family.
“I got to know the family (who lived in the Squiers' home) and knew they had discovered Twinzy Toys patterns and papers that had been stuffed into the home’s rafters for use as insulation. Some of it was beat up and some was usable,” Butler says.
When that family moved, those the patterns, papers, and other remnants of the Twinzy Toy Company landed on the Historical Society’s doorstep. “We cleaned up and saved what we could,” Butler says.
Several boxes containing what is left of the Squier sisters’ company are stored on shelves in the Historical Society’s office in the basement of the Fieldstone Center on Washington Avenue.
A magazine advertisement showing the price of Twinsy Toys back in the day.
The collection grew with the acquisition of more Twinzy dolls and a relationship that developed between the Historical Society and a descendent of the Squier family, Geri Sullivan, who lives in Massachusetts. Butler says Sullivan traveled to Battle Creek several years ago to give a presentation about her aunts and their company.
Faris approached the Historical Society to discuss the possibility of taking ownership of the Twinzy Toy brand. An agreement was reached which gave Faris the opportunity to re-start the business with a contractual obligation to provide revenue to the Society.
“I told them that you have all of this stuff and I think it’s worth something,” he says. “I wanted to take ownership if I could. It was a way for me to create something out of thin air to say, 'this is real.' I told them that I wanted to leverage the intellectual property they have and find ways to market it. It’s a venture that would have social impact and support.”
He is currently working his way through a maze of paperwork and regulations to get a trademark and a place on Amazon. In the meantime, he has been working with local organizations who have been providing the raw materials and production expertise.
Christman Screenprint in Battle Creek is providing printing support and volunteers with the Charitable Union, believed to be the city’s oldest nonprofit, have cut the material and sewn it together to make the dolls that have been used for test-marketing with children in the community.
Teresa Allen, Executive Director of the Charitable Union, says the collaboration made sense because Twinzy Toys began in the same neighborhood that her organization is located in. She says she was really drawn to the story of the Squier sisters and what they had accomplished.
“We all know about the stories of Post and Kellogg and how they came about and the impact they’ve had on the community,” Allen says. “Then, you’ve got these young women running a business at a time when women weren’t running businesses. It’s kind of an amazing story about how they raised money to do that and how independent and empowered these women were at a time when in certain areas of the country women couldn’t own property.”
The material used to make the dolls today is an organic cotton hemp blend that was selected because it has been exposed to fewer pesticides and is a lot more durable, Faris says. Children can use washable markers to design their dolls which are machine-washable.
An elf made from a sock was an original Twinsy Toy.
“The toys are really part of a larger business model,” Faris says. “What people really like about the toys now is the backstory. We’ve done test pilots with kids in pre-school and elementary schools and they love them. We offer printouts, so they can color the dolls in whatever way they want and write a little story or description on the back.”
Faris’ larger vision is to create not just dolls, but a network of co-creators who will come up with their own characters and stories to go with them. He says this will empower everyone to develop their own entrepreneurial skills.
“The Squier sisters did this so they could make money to go to school. I want to take that same drive and mission and let others participate and create a brand with me and (together we) benefit,” Faris says. “That’s what’s compelling about this. It’s the bigger business model and that vision that keeps me going.”