Saturday, April 2, 2011

Architecture 101, Anchor Building Blocks

A favorite possession of mine is an early 20th century set of Anchor Building Blocks. It comes in a wooden box with a very richly decorated lithograph cover.

Otto and Gustav Lilienthal originated Anchor Blocks in the late 1800s. They had the idea of making building blocks that were actually stone-like, and fabricated them from quartz sand, chalk and linseed oil. The colors of red, blue and cream were meant to approximate brick, slate and limestone. Friedrich A. Richter bought the rights to the product in 1880 and sold the sets under his name by 1895. From 1880 until his death in 1910, 40,000 sets of Richter's Anchor Stone Building Sets were sold.

Here's what remains of the bottom side of the wooden lid. While the packaging evokes 16th or 17th century German decoration, the accompanying booklet is in the Art Nouveau style.

The interior pages are delightfully illustrated with dozens of construction plans, from simple to highly elaborate. Budding architects could supplement their sets, and some sets were sold with thousands of pieces!

The back of the booklet advertises another Richter product, Meteor. Aspiring graphic designers could create images and patterns with colored marbles.

Anchor Blocks were produced through World War II as "stone," but under East German production, they were downgraded to plastic. In 1979, devotees of Anchor Blocks formed the Club of Anchor Friends. In 1995, with the help of the club, Dr. Georg Plenge restored the Anchor company under the name Anker Steinbaukasten GmbH. Today, authentic Anchor Blocks are sold at the KaDeWe department store in Berlin.



  1. Hi Mark, I have two of these sets, one large one small. I will send you pictures.

  2. Gina does indeed have two sets that are as old, if not older than mine, and the ornate packaging on all three is different. It is in fact part of Anchor Blocks' history that Dr. Richter was a great advertiser, and was steadily tweaking the blocks' packaging and advertising. The Lilienthals did not meet with commercial success, while Richter did.

  3. Thanks for posting Mark. This is so nostalgic for me.

    Blocks were probably my favorite toy when I was young. I had a commercial set (very plain compared to yours) and one that my grandfather made. I often used them to make "marble machines" which was a structure with a passage way inside of it using the triangular and other shaped blocks for a marble to follow. So a marble dropped in an opening at the top would exit via gravity at the bottom. I would make it so the marble had more than one possible exit just to keep things interesting.

  4. Scott, so creative right from the start.

    I should say here that these Anchor Blocks did not come into my possession until I was an adult (and I've still played with them!). But when I was young, I did play with a set of very brightly colored Japanese blocks (which perhaps will be another posting). They had lathed columns and a feature I haven't seen elsewhere — windows with colored celophane window panes.

  5. O...M...G....Somehow I missed these while growing up. These are amazing Mark! I want to have a playdate with you! I'll bring kool-aid and oreos!

  6. Mark, these are absolutely wonderful! I had numerous sets of blocks as a child from lego to blocks my mother had in the thirties! These are particularly inspiring. I always was intrigued with the suggestions that the makers suggested you could build.

  7. Theresa, I'll supply the kool-ade and oreos, just bring more blocks!

    David, I'd be intrigued to see the blocks from the 1930s, a time when the original Anchor company was still in business.

  8. I LOVE these!! Blocks were my favorite toy as well growing up. I remember spending hours playing and later building homes for my trolls (remember them?). We still have a huge wagon on wheels full of blocks here. I have added architectural sets over the years with arches and triangles for pediments but none quite as charming as these. My youngest is currently obsessed with Legos which is probably the next best thing.

  9. My favourite toy as a child was my Lego blocks. I had multiple sets so I could build large structures like castles. I saved them and they come out at Christmas as a little village and church under the tree.

    Even today, the quality of German and Swiss toys for children is far removed from the the plastic things seen in America. You can still buy many wooden toys and blocks, and of course the beautiful Steiff animals. German toy stores are amazing. The things are of course more expensive, but of heirloom quality and fewer are bought.

    It is very depressing to go to a North American garage sale or church bazaar and see hundreds of plastic Mattel Barbie items.

    In Germany, many well known brand names are "Doctor" something. It sells puddings, medicines, clothing, all kinds of stuff. I've noted this in 19th century American and British advertising, but it seems to persist today in Germany in a way we no longer see.

  10. As a military family, we did a lot of moving, so I had to regularly sort toys and make choices. In the process, I think I became more careful with my possessions than most kids, and I still have a box of childhood treasures. Many of the toys I played with were wood and heavy-duty cast metal of 1940s vintage. Some were made by Brio, a company that still produces fine quality toys.

    In a way, it's a shame that so many of today's toys are digital. I think the simpler toys gave room for more imagination, though I don't doubt that today's kids would argue otherwise.

  11. How many toys from today will stand the test of beauty in year to come- few to zip I'd guess. This would be out all the time at my house-Yours? great on a table where they could be moved about.

  12. Hi, Gaye - As a matter of fact, I keep them on a coffee table that has two glass surfaces/shelves. They're not always out, but they're always close at hand.

  13. I don't know what's coolest--the blocks themselves, the wooden box, or the lithographed instructions.

    These blocks are featured in a number of the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer's films. In the film "Alice", the rabbit's house is made of them, and when Alice gets trapped inside and the animals attack her (this is a weirder than usual version of Alice in Wonderland), Alice grabs blocks from the house and throws them at the animals.

    In Jabberwocky, the stone building blocks are animated, and keep rebuilding themselves into different patterns like those in the instructions that you showed us here.