Small Talk

The Adorned Thorne Rooms

thorne rooms christmas

Have you ever wanted to peek into the delight and spirit of holiday seasons gone by? Well, we have good news. One of the most festive holiday traditions at The Art Institute of Chicago is the annual decking of the Thorne Rooms’ halls. Some of the tiny period rooms don long garlands and dainty, dangling mistletoe. In the English Drawing Room of the Victorian Period, for example, a miniature Christmas tree sits atop a small table, complete with tall red candles on its limbs and a set of dolls resting beneath its bottom branches. In the modern-era California Hallway, a tiny blue menorah sits on a coffee table next to a box holding a dreidel.

In addition to regional, historically accurate décor in several other period rooms, this year’s special display also includes new decorations in honor of the Chinese New Year, a 15-day celebration marked by the lunar calendar. Common commemorative accents in the display will include tiny lanterns, floral arrangements, and banners inscribed with traditional Chinese sayings and idioms.

Photo: Mrs. James Thorne. English Drawing Room of the Victorian Period, 1840-70 (detail), c. 1937. Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Getting the Lead Out

Lead Soldiers with Mold

December brings holiday cheer, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and toy safety! The nation’s leading volunteer eye health and safety organization, Prevent Blindness America has declared December to be Safe Toys and Gifts Month “in order to keep the holiday season joyful for everyone.” Toy safety is a top priority, and organizations like the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission have also released safety tips and guidelines for buying and playing with toys.

Safe toys haven’t always been the standard. In the past, kids played with tiny steam engines, used candles to light up the interiors of their toy train stations and dollhouses, and even handled dangerous lead to cast their own toy soldiers. Anyone could buy blocks of lead and use a casting set to create toy armies and figures. This was marketed as an “easy and safe” activity…at least until the harmful side effects of lead were discovered and safety regulations were enforced in the 1960s and ‘70s. According to this article in Popular Science, just one of these lead soldiers contains enough lead to render several million toys unfit for sale in the U.S. by today’s standards. We don’t think Santa will be bringing any kids a lead casting set for Christmas this year!

Dashing Through the Snow

carol hardy miniatures

It’s the time of year for wintery carriage rides and festive carols! Written in 1857, “Jingle Bells,” one of the most popular songs of all time was, originally titled “The One Horse Open Sleigh.” It’s been sung the world over, and was even the first song performed in outer space. We like to think that this miniature Victorian sleigh is the one from the famous carol.

Artist Carol Hardy steam-bent pieces of wood to create the graceful curves of the runners and dash. The leg supports were fashioned from gleaming German silver. The sleigh’s body consists of black-painted cherry wood and the seats are upholstered in luxurious burgundy suede. Oh, what fun it would be to ride in this miniature open sleigh!

Keep on Truckin’

hess toy trucks

East Coasters will notice a big change after this holiday season. A roadside staple, Hess gas stations will all change their name to Speedway. Why are we mentioning this on Small Talk? Because it’s also the last year the Hess’s classic green trucks will be available for purchase at their stations. It’s truly the end of an era! Hess gas stations began carrying small toys during the 1960 holiday season. As a survivor of the Great Depression, founder Leon Hess desired to create small, affordable toy cars that came complete with batteries. The Hess 1964 Tanker Trailer sold for less than five dollars.

Fifty years later, Hess has established itself as a desirable outlet for collectors and children’s playthings in the United States. In light of the celebration, the company is offering a commemorative heavy-duty, flatbed truck with modern additions like motion and button-activated sounds, retractable landing gear, and folding wings. For more modern Hess fans, the company has also created a space cruiser complete with a large cargo bay that houses a small scouter plane. Although the trucks will roll out of the stations forever, don’t fret, the Hess line of transportation toys will still be available for purchase online.

Renaissance Woman

lee ann chellis wessel ceramics

A large portion of Lee-Ann Chellis Wessel’s work focuses on re-creating Renaissance masterpieces in miniature. Like a modern day Renaissance woman, Chellis Wessel not only excels at painting miniature renditions of egg tempera masterworks like this version of Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, but also Renaissance period maiolica (or majolica or mayólica, depending on where it’s from) ceramics.

Much like her egg tempera work, Chellis Wessel’s miniature maiolica is made using the same process as full-scale pottery. First created in the ancient Middle East, maiolica  is made by covering a clay vessel with a white glaze that has been made opaque by the addition of tin. The white glaze provides a blank canvas for the metallic oxide designs that are layered on top and become fused to the background during the firing process. The results are the same whether in full-scale or fine-scale miniature: a beautiful multicolored piece of pottery.

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