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Mirro Sno-Coaster: Cold Weather (and Cold War) Fun

Mirro Sno-Coaster sled manufactured by Aluminum Goods Manufacturing Co. of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, 1955.
(Museum object #2006.2.1)

In 1954 the Aluminum Goods Manufacturing Company of Manitowoc, Wisconsin was the largest manufacturer of aluminum cookware in the United States. Yet its size did not prevent it from seeking new markets and developing new products. Designers hoping to beef up the company’s line of toys developed an aluminum saucer designed for speeding down snow-covered hills. They called it a Sno-Coaster, and it hit the market in the winter of 1954-1955. Intentionally or not, the gleaming, space-age look appealed to America’s blooming fascination with flying saucers, and the toy became a hit.

The following winter, the Borsuk family of Madison, Wisconsin - Gerald, Lorraine and their children Paul, Alan, and Ricky (ages 8, 5 and 3) - bought two of the new-fangled sleds. In January 1956, the family took them sledding at Madison’s Westmoreland Park. Family friend and newspaper photographer Edwin Stein was there to record the experience.

A series of Stein’s photos documenting the outing appeared in the January 21, 1956 edition of the Wisconsin State Journal, under the heading “To Watch World Go Round, Take Spin in Flying Saucer.” The photos showed a typical Madison family thoroughly enjoying Wisconsin’s winter weather.

Stein, who had previously freelanced for Sports Illustrated magazine, apparently felt the photos had more than a local appeal. The editors of Sports Illustrated agreed, and under the title “Flying saucers come to earth,” rushed them into the magazine’s January 30, 1956 issue. The Sports Illustrated spread launched the photos internationally.

Starting in 1941, several government agencies operated programs to gather and disseminate information in foreign countries. After World War II, most of these functions were run by the Department of State, but in 1953 all federal information programs abroad were consolidated into an independent agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA).

A 1962 brochure describing the Agency’s work begins: “The U.S. Information Agency tells America’s story abroad. It seeks to make our national policies everywhere intelligible and, wherever possible, palatable. Its purpose is also to associate our people, in their daily lives, their progress, and their yearnings, with the legitimate aspirations of all peoples everywhere.”

The USIA was clearly engaging in Cold War propaganda, but it was a relatively soft variety. Echoing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s assertion that the most effective single book to put in the hands of the Russian people was the Sears Roebuck catalog, the U.S. government felt that the American standard of living could demonstrate the superiority of capitalism and democracy. By exposing Russian citizens to the quality of life in America, the USIA hoped to erode their support for the Communist regime.

In addition to sponsoring libraries, films, cultural programs, and the Voice of America radio network, the USIA produced a variety of foreign language publications. One of these was America Illustrated, a Russian language magazine distributed in the Soviet Union, which reprinted stories and images from American periodicals.

USIA editors were taken with the Borsuk sledding photos in Sports Illustrated and included them in the March 1957 issue of America Illustrated. Even fifty years later, the All-American quality of the sledding photos, which so appealed to USIA editors, shows through.

Although the USIA may not have known it, they could not have picked a more appropriate family for their purposes. Both Gerald and Lorraine Borsuk are descended from Russian Jews who had immigrated to the United States around 1900. Theirs is a classic American success story.

The dents and wear are testament to many years of fun by the Borsuk boys, but this Sno-Coaster is also a small part of “America’s story.” It is a Wisconsin-made toy, used by a Wisconsin family, which briefly became a Cold War symbol of the American way of life.

[Source: Lisle, Leslie. United States Information Agency, 1953-1983 (Washington: USIA, 1984).]

DBD


Posted on January 26, 2006

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