Small Talk / Toys

I’m So Fancy

Victorian Fancies

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

world war ii toy soldiers

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.

Papier Mâché Child’s Play

papier mache dolls

Izannah Walker wasn’t the only 19th century doll maker experimenting with new materials to create lighter, more durable dolls. In Europe, German manufacturers experimented with an abundance of inexpensive leftover materials. Local bookmaking factories made paper pulp an accessible alternative for doll manufacturing. The pulp was recycled and evenly pressed into greased molds to create a papier mâché doll.

With this papier mâché method, German doll makers could create intricately detailed, fashionable hairstyles like the one this doll from T/m’s collection is modeling. Molds were used for many years after their creation, even if the hairstyle went out of fashion. Today, we can actually study a doll’s hairstyle and determine when its mold was created.

Little Doll on the Prairie

presbyterian rag doll

While dolls come in many different shapes and sizes, some of the oldest dolls are made of fabric or rags. Cuddly and comforting rag dolls were easily and cheaply made with scraps out of the family sewing basket. Even Laura Ingalls Wilder carried her rag doll Charlotte on her family’s adventures across the American West.

When the women of the First Presbyterian Church of Bucyrus, Ohio decided to start a church fundraising campaign in the 1880s, they turned to rag dolls. The women began making and selling what are now known as Presbyterian rag dolls. These dolls had muslin bodies and beautiful hand-painted faces and each wore an ankle-length dress and bonnet. Generations of church women made these dolls through World War I and again from the 1950s to the 1980s. Luckily, some of the original rag dolls have survived the years by being passed down through the generations. Try your hand at making your own rag doll to create a lovable family heirloom!

Imagination Takes Flight

mechanical flying toys

From the ancient Greek myth of Icarus, to Leonardo Da Vinci’s fantastical flying machines, mankind has held the desire to fly for centuries. Up until the Wright Brothers finally got it right in 1903, “gentlemen scientists,” inventors and early aviators scrambled to unlock the secrets of powered and controlled air travel. During the era of the steam-powered engine, the idea of a flying machine really, well, took flight.

Toys of course mirror the times in which they were produced. Naturally, as the world became fascinated with flying, tin flying machine toys featuring propellers, wings, parachutes and hot air balloons became a common sight in the 19th and early 20th century. This particular clockwork wind-up mechanical flying machine toy was likely attached to a cantilevered weight on a central base. When the mechanism was wound, the pilot’s legs pedaled the propeller, causing the toy to “fly” in a circle. While this imaginative depiction of early flight makes for a charming toy, we’d still prefer a comfortable window seat and complimentary peanuts.

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