THE E. S.

LOWE TOY COMPANY, TIMING, AND CHESS
Updated March 2018
by Duncan Pohl

The very first chess set I owned was from the In an interview years later, Lowe recalled that
E. S. Lowe Company. It was a Renaissance chess set moment: “I cannot describe the sense of elation
I bought with my own money when I was about which that girl's cry brought to me, all I could
twelve, maybe thirteen, years old. I used that set think of was that I was going to come out with
for years, even using it to teach my own children this game and I was going to call it Bingo.” 1
how to play the game. So, while the stories A parish priest of a Catholic church in
about the games that made E. S. Lowe a success Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania saw the fund-raising
are well known – he apparently loved telling potential for the game and asked Lowe to
them himself – and though those stories had expand the game to allow more players, without
nothing to do with chess, for me, chess sets and allowing more winners. With the help of a
Lowe have always seemed synonymous. Granted, nearby college mathematics professor, Lowe
though the sets may be average and mass- delivered on the priest’s request and suddenly, he
produced, they still contain a lot of nostalgia. had a winner. By now, so the story goes, Lowe
had quit his job and started his own toy
Right Place, Right Time, Right Game company.
They say timing is everything, and that may Whichever story is true, the timing that night
have never been truer than for Edwin S. Lowe. couldn’t have been better for Lowe, because by
Whether his timing was good – or bad – 1934, it was estimated 10,000 games of Bingo
probably depends on which story is told. were being played across the United States each
One story has Lowe the owner of a fledging week, and Lowe's company had 1,000 employees
toy company he started in 1928 with $1,000 and working around the clock cranking out bingo
two employees. That would have made him games in an effort to keep up with the demand
barely 18, freshly graduated as valedictorian of (it was said that during this time his company
his class from Jamaica High School in Queens, was using more newsprint than the New York
New York. If this story is true, then his timing Times). According to one record, while Lowe
may have seemed pretty bad, as just a few “…was never able to trademark the word bingo,
months later came the Market Crash of 1929 and he still became the dominant player in the
the Great Depression and Lowe would have very industry and made even more money selling small
quickly found himself struggling to save his plastic chess and checkers sets.”2 (italics added) The
company. The other story has Lowe a 19-year- latter story, by the way, is the one referred to in
old toy salesman simply struggling to make a his obituary, making it seem the more creditable
living. Either way, events had Lowe on the road of the two.3
at the right time at the right place for the right Lowe’s ;invention; of the game Yahtzee was
game because, while traveling through Georgia another case of the right place, right time, right
one late December night in 1929, Lowe came game when, around 1956, a wealthy couple asked
across a country fair where a very popular game him to produce a game they had invented and
by the name of Beano was being played. Sensing played with friends on their yacht, called –
a possible winner, Lowe inquired about the creatively enough – The Yacht Game. In exchange
game, learned it had originally come from a fair for 1,000 free games to give to their friends and
in Germany, bought some of the game cards, families, the couple gave the rights to the game
and returned home to New York. With some
cards of his own and some dried beans, he 1 Eisler, Kim Isaac. Revenge of the Pequots. How a Small Native
introduced the game to friends. One woman, 2 Eisler, Kim Isaac. Revenge of the Pequots: How a Small Native
seeing she had won, got so excited, she couldn’t American Tribe Created the World's Most Profitable Casino, Simon &
remember to yell Beano and yelled Bingo instead. Schuster, New York, 2001.
3 Newsday (Combined Editions) Long Island, NY, Feb 25, 1986. p.07.
History of the E. S. Lowe Company

to Lowe. He renamed it Yahtzee, introduced it to Lowe sold chess sets, and the highly publicized
his friends in the same way he had introduced Fischer-Spaasky matches suddenly sent sales
Bingo, waited for word to get around, and once soaring. Other products started selling better as
again had a winner on his hands. During Lowe's well. By the time the parent company was ready
ownership, over 40 million Yahtzee games were to move the shop two years later, E.S. Lowe's
sold in America and around the globe. The annual sales had jumped from $6 million to
game has maintained its popularity. According about $23 million.5
to current owner Hasbro, 50 million Yahtzee Not bad for selling small plastic chess and checkers
games are sold each year.4 sets. And don’t forget – this was in 1970’s
In 1973, Lowe sold his company to Milton dollars. Incidentally, the managers at the new
Bradley for $26 million and involved himself in parent company were unable to find a single job
other pursuits – such as producing plays on for that New York crew and O’Konski ended up
Broadway and buying a 322-room motel, called quitting the company in disgust. Just a few years
the Tally-Ho Inn, in Las Vegas. Ironically, later, MB itself was bought out by Hasbro.
though he was the one who introduced Bingo to Karma? Maybe. Unfortunately, my requests to
the world, gambling was not allowed at the hotel, Hasbro asking for information on the histories or
and it failed a few months later. It eventually products of either of these companies have met
became the site of the Aladdin Hotel and is with little interest. Their standard response is to
currently the site of Planet Hollywood Resort say they never answer questions in regard to past
and Casino. products, etc., and suggest enquiring elsewhere,
By now some (well, maybe most) may well be such as from game collector sites, etc.
wondering what any of this has to do with chess.
Well, considering how successfully the games of Now, About Those “… Small Plastic
Bingo and Yahtzee sold gives much greater depth Chess… Sets”
to the scope of the statement made in Eisler’s Even though Edwin Lowe started his
account that Lowe’s company made even more company – at the very latest – in 1930, the
money selling small plastic chess and checkers sets. How earliest I can establish chess sets being sold by
much so? Well, an article on CNNMoney.com the Lowe Company is 1945; based on the
gives an inkling of the answer to that question. copyright dates found on the instruction sheets
While focusing on the burnout and dropout rate included with their sets. In fact, if one were to
of many executive managers in corporate use copyright dates as a form of dating, it would
America, the article gives the interesting ex- seem every chess set ever sold by Lowe had to
perience of one T. Robert O’Konski, as follows: have been sold during three particular years:
“Because it is much easier and cheaper to buy 1945 – almost every set sold by Lowe seems to
a successful product than to develop one in the have that copyright date, 1959 – the copyright
toy and game industry, major players like Milton date given the Renaissance chess set, and 1974 –
Bradley constantly zero in on small shops that when new copyrights evidently became necessary
have hit it big with a winner or two. One of the due to Milton Bradley’s new ownership of the
company's targets was E.S. Lowe, a New York Lowe company. Of course, that wasn’t really the
toymaker that sold the perennially popular game case, but the chess sets sold by Lowe remained
Yahtzee. Milton Bradley bought the company in unchanged for many years – the sets sold in the
1973, and O'Konski was sent down as a 1960s and 70s were the same as those sold in
caretaker until the business could be folded into
the corporate operation back up in
Massachusetts. O'Konski discovered that he had 5Breaking Away To Go On Your Own. Call it the new corporate brain
drain: More good managers, fed up to here, are walking away from
inherited a smart, motivated sales force …E.S. careers with big companies to try busi-ness without a boss
http://money.cnn.com/
4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yahtzee magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/1990/12/17/74471/index.htm
3

1945 or 1959, which evidently created little need Some Sample Chess Sets
for new copyrights. No. 804:
Still, from the little information I have 2¼” King
gleaned so far, there were at least a few different Ivory & Red
styles, sizes and materials used in the chess sets Ivory & Black
sold by the Lowe Company, but as far as Marbled Ivory & Marbled Black
numbers are concerned, ie: actual number of Marbled Red & Marbled Black
models offered, total volume of chess sets sold,
No. 815:
total dollars in sales, etc. – none have been
2½” King, Magnetic
forthcoming. For a company to have had such
Ivory & Black
significant sales over the years, just in chess sets
alone, makes me think the company must have No. 841:
made some kind of an impact on the American 3¼” King
world of chess. But can that impact be Ivory & Red
measured? How many different styles and sizes Ivory & Black
of chess sets did Lowe offer during the Marbled Purple & Marbled Pink
company’s history? And while the company Catalin with Presentation Case:
primarily offered plastic chess sets, it also sold 3¾” King
sets made of Bakelite and wood. Were any other Ivory & Red
materials used/offered by the company? How Ivory & Black
did the sales figures for chess sets compare with
No. 831: ANRI Renaissance
the sales figures for the company’s other games
4” King
and products? What kind of arrangement
White & Black
existed between Lowe and the Anri Company of
Gold & Silver
Italy – a company famous for high quality wood
carved products – to make Anri willing to No. 833: ANRI Renaissance
associate their name with the plastic Renaissance 4¾” King
chess set sold by the Lowe Company? White & Black
Also, did Lowe manufacture the sets it sold; Gold & Silver
were they supplied by outside vendors, or No. 835: ANRI Renaissance Coronation
perhaps a combination of the two? For 5” King
example, The Embossing Company manufactured a White & Black
series of pocket games, such as “Dominoes”,
No. 2506: The Crusader
“Time Puzzle” and “Bottoms-Up”, that it not
4½” King
only sold under its own name, but also supplied
‘Tan’ & ‘Brown’
the games to both the Drueke and Lowe
companies to sell under their own label – Lowe No 842: Travel Set
sold the series under the name ‘Bookshelf of White & Black
Games’ 6 . I have seen a Lowe ‘Bookshelf of White & Red
Games’ chess set (vol. 524), so it would seem Travel Sets: Various designs/packaging
safe to conclude chess was among the games
With the exception of the Catalin sets, the sets
manufactured and supplied by The Embossing listed above were sold with various options:
Company, but sold by Lowe. The above are all weighted, unweighted, felted or unfelted.
examples of information I hope becomes
available and/or confirmed in the future. Lowe also sold wood chess sets. However,
every example of wood chess sets sold by Lowe
appears to have been imported from France,
6 http://members.aol.com/jwmeredith/ embbook
primarily from the Lardy Company.
History of the E. S. Lowe Company

No. 804: 2¼” King

The black king is a re-
placement piece. The set
was sold without a board, a
modern glass board was and
used for display purposes
only.

Original box to the No.
804 set. Small end shows the
following information:
No. 804
Sattlers [Retailer]
998 Broadway
84¢
Lowe address is displayed
on the long side of the box:
27 West 20th Street
New York NY
Indicating the set’s age is
the lack of a zip code in the
address.
5

No. 815: 2½” King
Magnetic (Travel) Set
White & Black

Another Lowe ‘standard’ [see
No. 841], as it also appears to
have been sold throughout its
history without a change in
style/design. The set is shown
with the ‘Magneta’ (magnetized)
board that came with the set.

Like most chess sets sold by
Lowe, this set was offered in
various forms of packaging and
boxes. The set was usually sold
in a standard cardboard box
(left). Inside was a molded
plastic tray for holding the
individual pieces.

The set was also available in
what was called a “Presentation
Case” (left). However, that is
where the upgrades ended, as
inside was found the same
plastic tray as sold in the
cardboard box (top, next page).
History of the E. S. Lowe Company

Presentation Case

Shown above is a close-up of
the inside upper left corner of
the case displaying a ribbon with
the company logo.

No. 841: 3¾” King

This set, including the board,
may well be considered the
company ‘standard’ as it appears
Lowe sold it, unchanged, for
nearly thirty years, from its
introduction in 1945 until the
Lowe Company itself was sold
to Milton Bradley.
7

Catalin Set: 3¾” King
White & Black

Catalin set, c. 1950s. It was
offered in White & Black or
White & Red. The board in the
picture is not original to the set
and was used for display
purposes only.

Exterior of case to the Lowe
Catalin set. The ‘alligator’ faux
finish and bakelite handle would
seem to indicate this case is an
‘older’ one as ‘newer’ cases have
a more ‘leatherette’ material
with a leather-style strap handle.

Unlike the Presentation Case
for the Magnetic No. 804 chess
set, the interior of this case
benefitted from an interior
upgrade with fabric cushioning
and wooden dividers. Like the
previously mentioned Presenta-
tion Case, however, this one
also displays the ‘Logo ribbon’
in the upper left corner.
History of the E. S. Lowe Company

Catalin Set: 3¾” King
White & Red
The Lowe Catalin set dis-
played in its own Presentation
Case. This set and case may be
somewhat newer as, while it
does have a similar plastic/
bakelite handle like the previous
case, the case itself is has the
‘leatherette’ style finish. It also
features the same ‘Logo ribbon’
in the upper left corner of the
case.
Every piece of the catalin
sets come apart in the manner
shown below – even the pawns.

No. 831: ANRI Renaissance
4” King

The Renaissance Chess Set,
introduced by Lowe in 1959,
was a major new style from the
company and bore both the
Lowe and ANRI names. The set
is displayed on the board
originally sold with the set.
9

Sample Pictures of the
No. 831, 832 and 835
ANRI Renaissance chess
sets, demonstrating the
difference in sizes. As can
be seen by the pictures, the
difference in size between
the sets was gained by
adding pedestals to the
bases of the pieces, as well
as the variation of the
pedestal height and style.

No. 831

No. 832

No. 835
History of the E. S. Lowe Company

The Crusader, No. 2506
4½” King
‘Tan’ & ‘Brown’

In 1975, MB introduced a set
called The Crusader, which
appears to have been a rushed
replacement design for this set,
making one wonder if perhaps
whatever arrangement there was
between Lowe and ANRI did
not continue through the
change in ownership. Shortly
after Milton Bradley purchased
the Lowe Company, it offered
both Lowe’s original Renaissance
set and The Crusader set shown
here. Classic Games also sold the
set as the Norman Conquest.
Why, or how, the set came to be
sold by two totally different
companies is currently unknown.

[Board shown is not original
to the set and is used for
display purposes only.]

Due to its design, it is
difficult to find an undamaged
Crusader set. They are almost
always missing part of the
‘protrusions’ designed into the
set. For example, damage is
often seen in breakage of the
axes carried by the pawns, the
staff ends on the bishops, etc.
Supposedly, the cover art for
the box lid of the Crusader set
(above) was done with
assistance from the Higgins Army
Museum of Worcester, Massa-
chusetts. As of yet, this has not
been confirmed.
11

PEGGED TRAVEL SETS
Lowe also sold a series of travel
sets. Most contained the same
pieces, but were available in var-
ious types of packages. Examples
of Lowe Travel Sets are as follows:

No. 842 Chess and Checkers
Original Cardboard Sleeve
to Plastic Travel Set

Plastic Case to No. 842
Case slips inside cardboard
sleeve shown above.

Open case, showing board plus
checker and chess pieces.
History of the E. S. Lowe Company

Ad showing
interior of the
Bookcase Style
set (right). The
pieces are the
same as those
used in No. 842

Actual ‘Book-
case’ Exterior
(left)

Metal Pegged Set
Note the ‘Logo
ribbon’ in upper left
corner of case. Also
note the similarity of
this pegged set with
the set to the right,
which does not have
‘pegged’ bases.
13

An example of one of the
wood chess sets sold by Lowe:
imported from the Lardy
Company of France.

Conclusion – There’s That Timing Thing Again
While preparing this information, the thought in both style and quality. It may also help explain
occurred to me that times today are such that one why there is still a good market for the sets on such
could wish for the return/ continuation of the Lowe places as ebay and other venues.
Company. While there is no denying the sets sold by On the other hand, some say the dearth of decent-
Lowe were but basic, mass-produced plastic items, quality, mass-produced chess sets on the market
and certainly not of any great distinction in either today is due to one of two possibilities – if not both –
quality or style, they did serve their purpose – and either, 1) a lack of interest in chess by the younger
served it well. If Lowe was able to successfully sell generation as a whole, or, 2) because chess playing,
the same chess designs for nearly thirty years, does it for the most part, has moved onto the computer and
not seem possible the company could still be the internet. But I wonder. Most players will readily
successful today – selling the same chess sets, admit the pleasure of playing with pleasing, high-
unchanged, as it sold thirty plus years ago? And since quality pieces adds much to the enjoyment of the
the basic costs of designing and producing those sets game. But if you, as a newcomer to the game, were
would have been recouped long ago, one could well presented with one of the typical, store-bought sets
imagine the company remaining competitive. Plus, sold today, would you remain as interested in playing
considering the knobby little stubs of wood that are the game? Or, if Lowe’s chess sets were to appear on
passed off as chess sets in stores these days, the sets the market today, would Edwin Lowe find timing was
sold by Lowe in the past certainly come off the better once again working in his favor?