NEW YORK (The Deal) -- A common adornment of dealmakers' offices and cubicles, "deal toys" commemorate the work they spend their lives doing. But beyond being souvenirs, deal toys have a history, which D. Graham Burnett explores in Tombstones and Toys, an entertaining essay that appears in the current issue of Cabinet Magazine.
"Businessmen and bankers have given each other appreciative tchotchkes since the dawn of banking: Silver plate among the financiers of the Hanseatic League, crystal bowls exchanged by London magnates, engraved clocks in the Gilded Age," writes Burnett, a professor of the history of science at Princeton University.
The successor form is made from Lucite, a form of PMMA, or poly(methyl methacrylate), which was developed for use in shatterproof cockpit windscreens. By the 1950s, PMMA was sold in craft kits that allowed home hobbyists to encase mementos in polished Lucite, and coin collectors soon adopted the medium.
The deal toy is the marriage of Lucite with the tombstone advertisement, a term that dates to the late 19th century, when printers used it to refer to "column-width newspaper ads run without any illustration or typographical ornamentation," Burnett writes. After the crash of 1929, the Securities Act of 1933 placed strict requirements on the advertisements that banks were allowed to run.
Those restrictions meant that the tombstone ad became the format that companies and banks used to publicize financial transactions such as initial public offerings. From at least the late 1960s, law firms and banks produced Lucite slabs that encased the tombstone ads announcing new partner classes. By the late 1960s, banks were commemorating their new partner classes by embedding the partnership announcements in Lucite.
Burnett candidly admits that the chronology of the deal toy continues to elude him. Ad man Don McDonald is said to have created the first Lucite deal toy in 1973 for a school friend who became an investment banker. Sensing an opportunity, McDonald quit his job at an advertising agency and founded Don McDonald & Associates, which went on to "create its own production facility, open multiple offices abroad" and make as many as 5,000 toys a year in the mid-1990s. McDonald's son Michael followed him into the business, which is now part of Altrum Honors Inc.
Michael tells Burnett that deal toys became increasingly rococo during the 1980s. At the start of the decade, Philadelphia marked a municipal bond issuance with a tombstone ad encased in a silhouette of the Liberty Bell into which the famous crack had been etched with a stencil and sandblaster.
In 1983, Donald Trump commemorated the completion of the financial for the Atlantic City casino Harrah's at Trump Plaza with a deal toy designed to look like a giant poker chip. R.J. Reynolds and Nabisco honored their 1985 merger with a Lucite Oreo that opened to reveal a tombstone ad silk-screened on the cream portion of the cookie.
McDonald undoubtedly created the first major player in the deal toy industry, but he may not have invented the form, as shown by a fascinating historical tidbit. In 1973, Burnham & Co. commemorated its acquisition of Drexel Firestone Inc. with a Lucite cube that featured no text whatsoever and encased only two brass balls.
Michael Milken, who would use Drexel Burnham as the platform for building the high-yield debt market, had joined Drexel in 1970, but sadly Burnett does not tell us if was he among the recipients.