Small Talk / Toys

17 Winter Street

Victorian era dollhouse

Whether it was a big, shiny bicycle or a coveted baby doll, some of the most memorable childhood toys were received at Christmas time. This dollhouse is no exception. A little girl named Mamie Burt found this dollhouse under (or perhaps near) her Christmas tree in 1875. We don’t know much about Mamie, but we can figure out a little bit about her from her dollhouse.

Based on its construction and size, the dollhouse looks to be the work of a cabinetmaker. The front of the dollhouse is removable and the front door includes a street address: 17 Winter Street. More than likely, Mamie’s parents were members of the upper class and commissioned this dollhouse for her. The furniture Mamie played with may be gone, but the house is full of interesting architectural details. Check back here at Small Talk soon for more!

Jazzy Aggies

Agate Marbles

Agate marbles, or “aggies” (if you want to use mibster lingo) are a kind of marble made of agate, a colored variety of quartz. Agate marbles were the preferred shooter for many marble players because they are denser than glass or clay marbles. Popular from the 1860s until World War I, most agates were hand cut and produced in Germany. After the war, new technology allowed for glass marbles to be mass produced. During the heyday of marble playing, several American glass marble manufacturers like Akro Agate Co. and Christensen Agate Co. had the word “agate” in their name to suggest their marbles were similar to actual agates.

While other minerals were used to make marbles, like malachite (the green one on the left) and turquoise (the blue one on the right) spheres above, they probably weren’t intended for playing ringer or any shooting marble game (you wouldn’t want to lose them in a game of keepsies after all!). Instead, marbles made with semi-precious stones were intended for a variety of tabletop board games like solitaire.

Chop Shop

toy butcher shop

Victorian life was not for the faint of heart. While we may be used to ground beef or pork chops neatly packaged in Styrofoam and shrink wrap, that wasn’t always the case. Most Victorians were used to perusing dangling meat in storefront windows at their local butcher shop, just like this toy version from our collection. Although it may seem grisly as a toy, this child-sized charcuterie was meant to teach kids the grown-up skills of grocery shopping and business. What’s more, actual shops of the time period embraced their utility too, often using them as unique advertisements in store windows.

While a similar example exists in our collection, the toy butcher shop shown here is from the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood. Created in 1900 by the Christian Hacker Toy Company, this shop includes a friendly figurine that invites children and visitors alike to come closer and take in all of its details. Small wooden replicas of raw meat hang in the archways, and although the furniture inside appears oversized, it is all original to the piece.

Photo: Butcher Shop, c. 1900, Christian Hacker, Germany. Courtesy of the V&A Museum of Childhood.

Sew-Handy Dandy

toy singer sewing machine

It’s just about that time of year again: time to make your New Year’s Resolution. Why not pick up a new hobby or learn a new skill this year? Maybe it’s time to dust off that old sewing machine you inherited and give it a whirl! In 1910 the Singer Manufacturing Co. began producing Singer model no. 20. Nicknamed the Sew-Handy in the 1950s, it became the most popular child-sized sewing machine. Since the machine was simply a miniature version of a full-size sewing machine, it was also marketed as a lightweight travel machine for adults. Originally sold for about $3, it features a hand crank that created a simple chain-stitch.

The Singer Sew-Handy remained in production until 1975 with only 4 variations. This Singer Sew-Handy from the T/m collection appears to be a second generation machine dating somewhere from 1914 and 1926 based upon the number of spokes on the hand crank. We wonder how many fabulous doll wardrobes were created by young seamstresses practicing their skills on a machine like this one.

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!

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