Small Talk Archive: February 2014

Bearing It All

steiff teddy bear

An avid hunter, outdoorsman, and statesman, with his signature bristly mustache and furled brow, we often think of President Teddy Roosevelt as a tough and gruff historical figure who carried a big stick. But did you know that the oh-so-cuddly teddy bear was named after him? It all started when he went on a Mississippi bear hunting trip in 1902. Other members of the hunting party had successful outings, but not Roosevelt. Pitying his failure, a hunting guide cornered an elderly bear and tethered it to a tree for Roosevelt to shoot. Being a sportsman and a diplomat, he refused to kill the poor, helpless animal. A political cartoonist at The Washington Post caught wind of this story and illustrated the event. The story captured Americans’ hearts and gave rise to the furry friend we know and love today.

The teddy bear pictured above was photographed with his owner Mable Dixon during the first years of America’s teddy bear craze in 1906. Manufactured by the Steiff Company, he is made of mohair, yarn, and wool felt with glass eyes. According to the recorded oral history that accompanied the bear to T/m, Mable’s mother passed away when she was young. When her father remarried, she was sent to live with her grandparents. Mable recalled that she would hit the bear on the nose when she was frustrated with her father. Notice the worn mohair? Ever-empathetic, we like to think this bear would get Teddy Roosevelt’s stamp of approval: “BULLY!”

Roominate Illuminates STEM Skills

roominate STEM

As Stanford Engineering graduate students, friends Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen saw firsthand the lack of women interested in STEM fields. With only 11% of engineers being women, they knew something had to be done to get girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math at a young age. They realized that the toys they played with as girls were instrumental in developing the basic skills that built their interest in engineering as adults.  After consulting with professors, middle school teachers, and parents, the idea for a new toy was born: Roominate.

Roominate is a colorful building kit, similar to Erector Sets, Legos, or TinkerToys, that includes electrical circuitry, motors, and decorative elements like craft paper and pipe cleaners. The toy appeals to girls age 8 to 12 by combining construction elements with classic dollhouse play, allowing them to creatively build, while developing problem solving and spatial skills. Brooks and Chen developed a prototype and posted the project on the crowd funding website Kickstarter.com.  After just a month, the project earned over $85,000, more than three times their goal of $25,000. Roominate is now being sold in stores nationwide… furthering the company’s mission of “empowering the next generation of STEM women by changing the way girls play.” You go, girls!

Replicating The House That Abe Built

miniature replica of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home

Steve Jedd estimates that he and Allison Ashby spent roughly 800 hours on their miniature replica of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home. During a visit to The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures in 2011, the artists told us that their work is illusion, that the scale, especially the scale of the wood grain and the wood’s durability, is more important than the authenticity of the materials.

Ashby and Jedd built Lincoln’s cabin from the ground up with a stone foundation and fireplace of carved and painted basswood, and door and windows of beech. They used old Cyprus for the flooring because it looks like pine. And in order to make the logs look hand hewn, they took cedar lumber, cut it down to length, and then used hammers, chisels, and wire brushes to make it look weathered.

A Fair to Remember

antique carnival toys

Who doesn’t love the fair? The lights, the cotton candy, the spinning rides … ok, maybe those aren’t for everyone. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (or Chicago World’s Fair) marked the beginning of traveling carnival companies. The fair exhibited the most cutting edge technologies and innovations of the day and provided a fun diversion for spectators. On the edge of the fair was a pedestrian walkway called the Midway Plaisance, which hosted spectacles such as freak shows, burlesque shows, games, and carnival rides including the first Ferris wheel!

Naturally, the idea of traveling carnivals caught on. In the years that followed the fair, dozens of traveling carnival companies popped up and toured the country one city at a time. Toy companies took notice of the burgeoning industry, and carnival-themed toys began to pop up too. The Hubley Toy Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania was originally founded in 1894 as a train equipment company, but later switched to manufacturing toys like this carnival gondola ride at the turn of the century. A key-wound clockwork mechanism activates the ride, causing the gondolas to slide from side to side as the wheels turn. Carnival toys like this one were a great way to enjoy the rides after the carnival left town (especially if the real thing made you a little queasy!).

The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection

eye miniatures skier collection

Before the widespread practice of photography, miniature portrait artists provided tiny, life-like representations for loved ones to carry with them or wear as a pendant. Often trained as jewelry makers, miniature portrait artists had the technical skill to work on a super-fine level of detail, resulting in these wearable pieces of art. One very special collection, the Skier Collection of Eye Miniatures, depicts only the eyes of loved ones painted on ivory. Disembodied eyes may seem a little macabre, but the works are quite romantic and mysterious in nature. After all, eyes are said to be the window to the soul.

Often referred to as “lover’s eyes,” eye miniatures are rooted in a 19th century code of chivalry in which symbols like gems and flowers held special meanings. For example, eye miniatures adorned with pearls may have symbolized mourning, garnets were used to adorn the eye of a friend, and coral warded off evil. The endless wealth of meanings within each piece was often left up to the recipient to decipher. It would sort of be like reading one of your friend’s “vaguebook” posts! The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection will be on view May 17 -August 24, 2014 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Photo: Rose gold oval brooch surrounded by seed pearls, ca. 1790. Collection of Dr. and Mrs. David Skier.

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