Before K'nex, even long before Lego, for nearly three quarters of a century, the single most popular building toy in the world was Ankersteinbaukasten, produced by F. Ad. Richter & Cie. in Rudolstadt, Germany. Known as Anchor Blocks in the English-speaking world, they were the premier building toy for generations of young architects.

Anchor Blocks are carefully crafted architectural building blocks made from a stonelike composite of quartz and sand. The basic unit was a cube 25 mm on a side, and all further measurements in the building system were based on this size. Anchor Blocks are highly prized by collectors and hobbyists alike, for their durability, precision craftsmanship, and incredible variety of building sets and pieces. (To this day, no one is certain of quite how many different building sets or stone designs were ultimately produced.)

Anchor Blocks are also eagerly collected by architects and architecture schools for their attention to architectural sensibilities. Since the blocks are noninterlocking, all building is done through stacking. So careful attention to architectural engineering principles must be paid when building with the stones. Likewise the variety of pieces, many of which are designed to perform specific architectural or stylistic functions, add to the verisimilitude of Anchor Block constructions. Anchor Block buildings made by expert Anchor builders are unmatched in detail and accuracy when compared with just about any other building toy. Many hobbyists put their efforts towards creating intricately detailed reproductions of modern or historic buildings.

The History of Anchor Blocks

Anchor Blocks were invented by Gustav and Otto Lilienthal, who were inspired to create a building block set that was made of a stonelike material, to better emulate actual architectural constructions. Their inspiration for their building blocks was Friedrich Froebel, one of the first to propose building blocks as an educational toy (and better known to the world as the inventor of the Kindergarten concept). The Lilienthals developed a technique for producing a stonelike building block by compressing and baking a slurry of quartz, sand, and linseed oil, but they lacked the wherewithal to market their invention. They sold their idea to Friedrich Richter, who originally founded F. Ad. Richter & Cie. as a patent medicine company. In 1880 F. Ad. Richter began crafting the blocks, and in 1882 the company dedicated a factory to their production. The blocks, crafted in stone, brick, and slate colors to emulate the popular building materials of the day, were immediately popular throughout the world, and were sold under several different trademarks (including "Squirrel" and "Comet" Blocks) before the Anchor brand was settled upon.

Over the years, a vast selection of sets (over 400) were produced, and an even more impressive array of stone shapes were offered--at least 1200 different stone shapes have been recorded. The basic sets included bricks, arches, roof stones, and columns, and were designed to build Gothic cathedrals, castles, and palaces. Extension sets were offered that included pieces suitable for building country homes, military fortresses, and even Greek temples (complete with tapered, fluted columns). Years before the Erector set, iron building components were introduced from which bridges and roof frameworks could be built.

Anchor Blocks were the world's single most popular building toy for decades, inspiring countless imitators. However, no brand approached the quality and thoughtfulness of design that Anchor Blocks offered. The blocks' popularity remained strong until World War II, when a host of different economic and social effects negatively impacted sales and production. Anti-German sentiment and postwar depression had a severe impact on export of the stones. Simultaneously, political and economic forces behind the Iron Curtain mandated a move away from both the physical and stylistic aspects of Anchor Blocks. The Renaissance and Gothic stylings that were present in Anchor Blocks were seen as imperialistic and contrary to the motives of the German Democratic Republic. Likewise, the future of building was thought to lie in the new science of plastics, so the development of plastic building toys over wooden and stone ones was encouraged. In 1963, production of Anchor Blocks was ceased by the DDR government.

However, since the mid-1990's, the company Rudolst├Ądter Anker-Steinbaukasten-Fabrik GmbH & Co. KG have been producing the stones again, based on the original molds, using the original composite formula, and with the same exacting standards of precision that characterized the originals. They now offer ten or so of the original building sets, and although the sets are rather pricey, the quality and elegance of these building toys cannot be matched. The new production of Anchor Blocks has won several awards from parenting and educational associations--an impressive feat for a toy that is over a century old!




Sources:

  • www.ankerstein.org: The premier US Anchor hobbyist website. Lots of good history, oftentimes great pictures of amazing Anchor constructions, and new sets for sale.
  • www.ankerstein.de: Official website for the toy.