Small Talk

A Fair to Remember

Carnival Ride

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

Look of Love

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.

She Was Still A Little Girl Who Had Toys

Anne Frank's Diary, Copyright Anne Frank House, Photographer Cris Toala Olivares, 2010

Like many other Jewish children during Nazi occupation in Europe, Anne Frank gave away her toys before going into hiding with her family. Eventually, she was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she died of typhus. The diary Anne kept is now regarded as one of the most widely-read pieces of Holocaust literature.

Anne gave the family cat and several toys, including her marbles, a tea set, and a book, to one of her non-Jewish childhood friends, Toosje Kupers, because she feared they would “end up in the wrong hands.” Kupers, who is now 83 years old, found the items last year while moving and decided to give them to the Anne Frank House Museum. The toys are on display as part of an exhibit at the Kunsthal Art Gallery in Rotterdam: The Second World War in 100 Objects is on view now through May 5, 2014.

Photo: Anne Frank’s Diary, Copyright Anne Frank House, Photographer Cris Toala Olivares, 2010

Durable Daisy

Schoenhut Doll

We’re going to take a break from Schoenhut’s playsets to take a look at another extension of the toymaker’s offerings: an unbreakable all-wood doll. The jointed Schoenhut All-Wood Perfection Art Doll was advertised in a 1911 catalogue with a “new patent steel spring hinge, having double spring tension and swivel connection.” This meant the doll could pose in many human-like positions. Holes in the bottom of the doll’s feet allowed them to pose flat-footed or on tip toe with a special doll stand.

While wood might not seem all that loveable, Schoenhut’s process of carving and burning away the rough wood left the surface as smooth as glass. The dolls were modeled after real children and painted with enamel oil colors so they could be washed easily after a messy tea party. The first dolls were 16 inches and came either dressed or undressed in modern children’s styles for $2 to $5. T/m’s Schoenhut doll Daisy was donated to the museum by her original owner Dorothy who received her as a Christmas gift. Daisy, who was named after Dorothy’s mother, went on many adventures before coming to us!

Toy Libraries: Lending a Smile

Toypedia Toy Library

You can rent just about anything these days: books, cars, videos (ok, well, maybe not so much anymore)… but how about toys? While toy libraries haven’t quite caught on yet in America, they’re all the rage in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Here’s how it works: parents buy a yearly membership to their local toy library to check out a toy for a period of time, similar to a book from a library. Once the time period is up, the toy is returned to the library, cleaned, and put back on the shelf for the next child. Pretty cool, huh? Not only do toy libraries promote learning and cognitive development through play, they also keep unwanted toys out of landfills and save parents tons of money!

Here in America, folks seem to be warming up to the toy lending concept. A librarian at the Ottendorfer branch of the New York Public Library in the East Village decided to loan out an American Girl doll, Kirsten Larson, along with her corresponding storybook. The unofficial doll lending program became immensely popular and has since expanded to include several other American Girls, which normally retail for upwards of $100. Offering children the opportunity to play with a toy their parents might not be able to afford is yet another reason toy libraries are catching on. Click here to find a toy library near you!

Photo: Toypedia, a toy library with branches in Gurgaon and South Delhi, India.

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