Small Talk Archive: March 2014

Diplomatic Dolls

japanese friendship dolls history

Decades before Hello Kitty captured the hearts of Americans, a fleet of Japanese dolls came to America to promote peace and ease cultural tensions. In the 1920s, anti-immigrant sentiments and cultural differences between Japan and America were coming to a head. An American missionary named Sidney Gulick proposed a doll exchange with Japan in order to open an avenue for peaceful communication. In 1927, American school children sent 12,000 “American Blue-Eyed Dolls” to Japan just in time to celebrate Hina Matsuri. Millions of Japanese children were so enthralled with the dolls that they donated money to create dolls to be sent to America, and thus the Japanese Friendship Dolls were born! Each doll represented a different Japanese prefecture, city, or colony and came with beautifully designed accessories such as teapots, parasols, and chests. (T/m is now home to one of these dolls, Miss Fukushima!)

Unfortunately, the diplomacy of the American Blue-Eyed Dolls and the Japanese Friendship Dolls did not last. When World War II broke out years later, dolls from the exchange were considered inappropriate to display, or even treasonous to possess. Many dolls were lost or destroyed. Those that remained safe through the years are now considered highly collectible. See some of them on exhibit in The Japanese Woodblock Print: An Extension of the Impermanent at the Montana Museum of Art & Culture on view now through April 19, 2014.

Photo: Miss Shimane Japanese Friendship Ambassador Doll, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Wikimedia Commons.

There Once Was A Teddy in Africa

schoenhut safari adventures in africa

After being succeeded in office by William Howard Taft, the former president Theodore Roosevelt set out for Africa to hunt big game and collect specimens for the Smithsonian Institution. Known to history as the Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition, the party began their journey 105 years ago this month and included Roosevelt’s son Kermit who served as official photographer, three representatives from the Smithsonian (a retired Army surgeon and field naturalist, and two zoologists), two famous big-game hunters, a wildlife photographer and filmmaker, and several hundred porters and guides. They collected 1,100 specimens, 500 of which were big game; Teddy and Kermit personally collected 17 lions, 11 elephants, and 20 rhinoceros.

Roosevelt’s travels were memorialized in several ways from the silent film Roosevelt in Africa to Scribner’s Magazine’s articles that were later gathered together and published as a book, African Game Tails, in 1909. That same year, Schoenhut Company introduced their tribute to the expedition: Teddy Roosevelt’s Adventures in Africa Playset. Produced until 1912, the set included a doctor, naturalist, taxidermist, and native guides. Some of the playset parts were repurposed from the popular Humpty Dumpy Circus Playset, but the rhinos, zebras, hyenas, gazelles, deer, and gorillas were introduced for the first time. Bet you can’t guess which one is Teddy Roosevelt (hint: he’s carrying a rifle instead of a big stick)!

Mini Mirror on the Wall

annelle ferguson william robertson mirror

Constructed with rich materials in fine detail, this miniature needlepoint mirror looks like it could play a part in a tiny version of Snow White. The mirror’s stitched frame by miniaturist Annelle Ferguson is based on traditional 17th century design and depicts a king and queen, flowers, vines, and a fawn. The tortoiseshell and boxwood outer frame was painstakingly constructed by William R. Robertson. We personally think this mirror is definitely in the running for “fairest of them all.”

How can miniature artists like Ferguson achieve such tiny needlepoint? Well, it’s simple mathematics (ok, plus a lot of talent). Miniature needlepoint or petit point takes the art form to a smaller level by using finer canvases with higher thread counts and by using specialized needles made for working on a fine scale. Sounds easy enough to start your own needlepoint project, right? Whatever you do, just be sure to finish it! Then again, maybe we should leave the stitchery up to the pros for now.

Inspiring A Collection

colleen moore's fairy castle

One of the major inspirations for the modern fine-scale miniature movement is Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago. The miniature, yet grand structure was completed in 1935 by artists and craftsmen of the day, and is similar to Queen Mary’s Dollhouse at Windsor Castle. It includes not only stunning miniature architectural details, but also tiny fine art pieces ranging from ancient antiquities to modern murals. Inspired by different fairy tales and folk tales such as The Three Little Pigs, Cinderella, and Gulliver’s Travels, each room tells a different story!

Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle has been on display at the Museum of Science and Industry since 1949. Just like many older houses, the Fairy Castle’s electrical and plumbing systems (yes, miniature plumbing!) were in need of an upgrade in order to prevent damage to the structure and its contents. Earlier this year, a team of conservators revamped the castle, preserving it for generations to come.

Photo: The exterior of Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle prior to conservation. [J.B. Spector, Museum of Science and Industry]

A Dollhouse Mystery

mary harris francis dollhouse

Much of T/m’s collection of over 46,000 toys was amassed by co-founder Mary Harris Francis. With an affinity for play, she began collecting dollhouses in the 1970s, starting with the New Rochelle Mystery House. Little did she know that within a few years she would have enough dollhouses and toys to open a museum!

This stately 12 room dollhouse gets its name from its place of origin- New Rochelle, New York. What exactly is so “mysterious” about it? The term mystery house was coined by dollhouse historian Flora Gill Jacobs to describe dollhouses with unknown origins, many of which were handmade. That’s exactly the case with the New Rochelle Mystery House. While similar dollhouses have been spotted in late 19th century F.A.O. Schwarz catalogs, the painted number “1074” above the door suggests that it was custom made for a little girl who lived at that same address number. Stay tuned for more mysterious dollhouse details…

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