Small Talk Archive: April 2015

Lovely Lilli

Bild Lilli Doll

You might recognize this blonde bombshell from somewhere … could it be one of Barbie’s distant relatives (remember Francie?) or maybe one of her many friends? Well, sort of. This 11 ½ inch tall beauty is (unofficially) the inspiration for the first Barbie doll, released in 1959.

Bild Lilli doll is based on a 1950s comic strip character that appeared in the Hamburg, Germany tabloid Bild-Zeitung. In the comic, Lilli is a sassy secretary who uses her … uh … charm to get what she wants. In 1955, Lilli’s creator, cartoonist Reinhard Beuthien decided to market Lilli as a doll. She was sold in a few toy stores and cigar shops in Europe, but was likely more of a novelty. Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, stumbled across Bild Lilli on a trip to Germany in 1956, and brought a few dolls back with her. After Barbie’s huge success in the early 1960s, Mattel purchased the rights to Bild Lilli and the rest is history!

A Storied Past

dolls' houses from the V&A Museum of Childhood

If the residents of the V&A Museum of Childhood’s dollhouses could talk, can you imagine the stories they’d tell? That’s exactly the focus of the special exhibit Small Stories: At Home in a Doll’s House. Fictional family dramas, posh parties, and even spooky mysteries told from the viewpoints of dolls speak to the time period of their home.

Twelve dolls’ houses spanning 300 years of history are displayed, including an 18th century London townhome, a 1930s modern villa with a swimming pool, and a swinging ‘60s high-rise flat. Not just lovely on the outside, the contents of the houses also reflect the everyday lives of residents, guests and employees who would have inhabited the full-sized homes of their day. The exhibit includes a special art installation Dream House in which designers have created miniature fantasy rooms that reflect the imagination, technology and art of today.

Photo: Whiteladies House, 1935, Moray Thomas, England. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Seeing Double: Two Georgian Colonial Manors

William R. Robertson Miniatures

Self-described as a fanatic for function, authenticity, and detail, it comes as no surprise that William R. Robertson spent five years of full-time work building Twin Manors, two identical houses based on his research of 18th century historical homes from Virginia to Maine. Robertson envisioned the Georgian Colonial structure in 1979 and built a 1:87 scale mock-up to help him design the two, identical 1:12 scale versions. One manor is in the T/m collection and one is in Robertson’s private collection.

Robertson incorporated “the best features” into each of the thirteen rooms in the circa-1760 mansion. For example, the master bedroom’s fireplace mantel was adapted from the library of Gunston Hall (c. 1750, Lorton, Virginia). The Newburyport Room (first floor on the left) was named for its back wall stylized after a wall in the mid-eighteenth-century Dalton Club (Newburyport, Massachusetts). The drawing room combines the designs of Pennsylvania’s Graeme Park (c. 1722 in Horsham) and Woodford Mansion (c. 1756 in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia). And the front doors, with more than 216 pieces each, are replicas of those adorning the Wentworth-Gardner House (Portsmouth, New Hampshire).

As you can imagine, there is a lot more to discover in this miniature manor. Stay tuned!

Through Thick and Tin

Mechanical Tin Toys

Who doesn’t love fresh frog legs?! This chicken and goose that make up this pull toy sure can’t seem to share! From the mid-19th century until World War I, cheaply mass produced tin toys known as “penny toys” were very popular. In the years following the Great War, however, competition in the market increased and toys became larger and more technologically complex in order to keep children’s attention.

T/m’s circa 1930 Gebruder Einfalt Chicken and Goose Pull Toy is an example of one such company’s transition to larger tin toys. Nuremburg’s Gebruder Einfalt (later Technofix) was founded in 1922 by two brothers, Georg and Johann. While many of Gebruder Einfalt’s early toys were erratic wind-up toys and wheeled pull toys, they eventually found their niche making racecars, trains and other transportation toys that reflected changing technology.

Stitches of the Past

Black dolls

For some toys it can be somewhat easy to uncover their history. Consulting old catalogs, collector books, company histories, and even personal anecdotes from their owners help historians like us at T/m to tell the story of a special toy. For some toys, however, their past is harder to uncover because they were not mass produced and may have been “loved to death.”

An exhibit at the Mingei International Museum explores the storied past of some of America’s most fascinating and mysterious playthings: black dolls. The exhibit showcases over 100 unique handmade African American dolls from the collection of Deborah Neff. The dolls represent a rich handcrafting tradition spanning from 1860 to 1930. Some dolls in the exhibit are also paired with an antique photograph depicting them with their young owners. The dolls on display depict a variety of emotions and give viewers a rare glimpse into the lives of their creators and owners.
Photo: Courtesy Mingei International Museum.

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