Small Talk

A Southwestern Sanctuary

A Southwestern Sanctuary

The famous miniature Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago range from historical replicas influenced by patron and artist Narcissa Thorne’s travels abroad to striking reproductions of regional American home décor. These special rooms have been viewed, studied and enjoyed by generations (and even inspired a series of juvenile fiction books!).

The inspiration for one of our favorite works in the collection originates far from Thorne’s home in the Windy City. New Mexico Dining Room, c. 1940 includes small touches of both Pueblo Indian and Southwest American life, a style known as Pueblo Revival. Thorne’s eye for detail is not only apparent in the objects she chose to incorporate in the room setting, but also in the room construction itself. The kiva in the right corner of the room appears well-used with charring around its opening.  Colorful hand-loomed rugs, festively painted chairs, tiny retablos and intricately carved furniture all speak to the regional flavor that attracted many artists during New Mexico state’s early years.

Photo: Mrs. James Ward Thorne. A34: New Mexico Dining Room, c.1940. c.1940. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.

A Game of Perfection

A Game of Perfection

In 18th century America, games and gambling were all the rage. This miniature game table, based off a c. 1770s Philadelphia Chippendale table, would have been perfect for tiny card games! Less than four inches tall, the table’s base was hand-carved by Wm. R. Robertson. The base, shaped from Swiss pear wood, features delicately curving ball-and-claw legs that support the functioning tilt-top surface.

Robertson’s mother, Esther Robertson, created the petit point stitched surface. Based on an Italian tapestry design, the tabletop consists of 33,000 stitches in 41 colors of silk thread. It took her three months to complete the design; when it was finished, she gave it to her son, who painstakingly attached it to the table. Esther Robertson was so nervous something would go wrong during the attachment process that she had to leave the house! Of course, the finished piece turned out beautifully, and the miniature game table is a testament to the amazing design and craftsmanship that goes into making a miniature.

I’m So Fancy

I’m So Fancy

We’ve got to hand it to the Victorians: they were recycling and reusing a century before the country had heard of Al Gore or Earth Day! Everyday objects like wishbones, spools and nut shells were all given a new life as fanciful, yet functional art objects. All the rage in the 19th century, this crafty trend of turning trash into tiny treasures resulted in Victorian fancies.

While T/m’s  Victorian fancy doll isn’t exactly winning the beauty contest amongst the dolls in our collection, she certainly gets high marks for functionality and being “green.” Her body consists of a wishbone wrapped in muslin and plaid fabric scraps; and her head is painted cork. Her dress is actually intended to be used as a pen wipe, a desktop necessity in the days of the dip or nib ink pens. The tag pinned to her reads, “Once I was a wishbone, And grew upon a hen. Now I am a ‘Spinster,’ Made to wipe your pen.”

Toys for the War Effort

Toys for the War Effort

During World War II, many Americans got their first taste of recycling by saving and donating household items to support the war effort. Stockings became parachutes; leftover cooking fats were turned into glycerin for gunpowder. From 1942-1945, metal was so scarce and necessary for the war that even the Oscar statues given out at the Academy Awards were made of painted plaster. Kids got involved by marching their toy soldiers to scrap metal collection facilities to be melted down for the war effort. In order to stay in business, toy manufacturers were forced to find different materials for their toys.

One company, Playwood Plastics, survived the metal shortages by making soldiers out of sawdust mixed with a glue-like substance of water and flour. The mixture was stamped into shape and left to dry. The soldiers were then hand-painted. Not as hearty as their metal cousins, many broke apart over time. T/m’s pair retain traces of their original blue paint. The distinctive “P” in a triangle marks them as Playwood Plastics soldiers.

Playful Competition Winners

Playful Competition Winners

The ballots have been tallied and the results are in. Congratulations are in order for the newest inductees to the National Toy Hall of Fame: bubbles, the Rubik’s Cube, and little green army men everywhere!

No one knows when bubbles first floated into the world, but images of children playing with them first appear in 17th century Flemish paintings. Today there are a ton of different bubble makers on the market accounting for the purchase of more than 200 million bottles annually!

Little green army men first marched into our hearts in 1938. Younger siblings of metal and lead toy soldiers, these two to four inches of molded plastic represent mid-20th century United States military. Still produced in the millions by multiple manufacturers, these little guys continue to advance into children’s imaginations and toy boxes, and have even landed co-starring roles in the Toy Story films.

Last but not least, the colorful and ever-puzzling Rubik’s Cube was inducted during its 40th anniversary year. Congratulations to all the winners! Don’t worry if your favorite toy didn’t get in; there’s always next year.

Photo: Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York.

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