Small Talk / Toys

Josephine’s Story

Josephine Bird Dollhouse Attic

The Josephine Bird Dollhouse is one of the most intact, antique dollhouses in the T/m collection. In previous blog posts, we’ve explored the bookcase-style dollhouse and some of its contents, which were originally owned and played with by young Josephine Bird in 1890s Kansas City. One of the many reasons why we love dollhouses is because they are time capsules that have a lot to tell about their original owners. So, what did this time capsule (with a little research to fill in the blanks) tell us about Josephine?

Born in 1889, Josephine was the daughter of one of the founders of the Emery, Bird, Thayer Department Store (E.B.T.) in Kansas City. As a child, she repurposed several pieces of E.B.T. merchandise in her dollhouse. As a young lady, she went to finishing school in Florence, Italy. Some of the treasures in the dollhouse’s attic are almost certainly souvenirs she collected on her travels. As a finishing touch, several feathered friends perch atop this stately dollhouse, reflecting Josephine’s last name!

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Mechanical Oarsman

Patented in 1869 by Nathan S. Warner, this mechanical oarsman toy was the first of its kind. Warner worked for a sewing machine manufacturer and used his technical know-how to secure design patents for several clockwork-mechanized toys. The patent allowed E.R. Ives and Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut to produce this mechanized, mustached rower toy, which became a hit among kids and adults alike.

Once the toy is wound up and placed in water, the oarsman’s torso moves back and forth along with his arms, which are attached to the oars. The movement of the oars propels the boat through the water. When the rudder on the back of the boat is turned, the oarsman will row in a circle; when the rudder is straight, he rows in a straight line. Mechanical oarsman toys were manufactured by several other firms as well, so don’t be surprised if you come across some interesting variations. In fact, radio controlled versions are still manufactured today!

Gimme A Ring

Seiffen Ring

While Noah seemingly had an easy enough time gathering two of every animal for his ark, we were starting to wonder how toy makers got enough beasts to fill their arks?  We found the answer in the small German town of Seiffen. At the end of the 18th century, woodworkers invented an ingenious method to make lots of wooden animals cheaply and efficiently (and rather attractively, we might add): the Seiffen ring. The ring allowed craftsmen to meet the popular demand for Sunday toys in markets far and wide.

How can a ring become a lounge of lizards or a caravan of camels? First, a cross-section of a tree trunk (usually fir) is cut. Next, the disk-shaped piece is shaped and turned on a lathe to produce a donut-shaped wooden ring with the profile of a particular animal. After the shape of the animal takes form, the ring is sliced like a pie into segments to create each individual figure. The finishing touches are hand-carved and the details are painted. Sounds easy enough, right? Check out this video (and brush up on your German) to see the process in action.

Photo: Seiffen, Staatliche Spielwaren-Fachschule, German Federal ArchivesWikimedia Commons.

Toy Town, USA

Noah's Ark

Just like Santa’s workshop at the North Pole is today, the small town of Winchendon, Massachusetts was once home to the largest production center for wood toys in the world. Winchendon received the nickname “Toy Town” thanks to the Converse Toy & Woodware Company (later known as Morton E. Converse Company). Founded in the 1870s by Morton E. Converse, the company mass-produced every type of wooden toy good little girls and boys could imagine, from dollhouses to rocking horses. In fact, if you visit Winchendon today, you’ll find Clyde II, an oversized replica of a hobby horse originally carved by Converse.

Converse got into the toy business after carving a set of doll dishes for his ailing daughter. After her recovery, Converse added wooden legs to a collar box, creating a tea table with a place inside to store the wooden dishes. This sense of ingenuity and adaptive reuse served Converse well. The company produced over 250 kinds of toys before closing in the 1930s. Not to be confused with the popular shoe of the same name, Converse toys can sometimes be identified by the “Converse” printed directly on the wooden structure.

Meet Our Friendship Doll

Mrs F

As part of the 1927 international doll exchange between the U.S. and Japan, 58 Japanese dolls traveled to the U.S., and were distributed coast to coast amongst museums and public venues. On a diplomatic mission to promote peace and understanding between the two countries, these ichimatsu ningyo became known as the Japanese Friendship Dolls.

Just who were they? Let us introduce you… each doll represented a different Japanese city, prefecture or territory. Expertly designed and constructed by Japanese artists, the dolls stand 32” high, have wigs of human hair, and glass eyes. Each had her own set of accessories, including a traditional tea set, travel trunk, and a richly styled kimono. Look closely at each doll’s kimono to find a unique mon, or crest, repeated in the pattern (sort of like the Houses at Hogwarts)!

The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures is home to Miss Fukushima, one of the Friendship Dolls representing a Japanese prefecture. We’re proud to have “Miss F.” here at the museum, as she is one of the most intact of the original 1927 group. Over 40 of Miss Fukushima’s original accessories came with her to T/m including two tea sets, a sewing kit, and even a booklet entitled “Japanese Children and Dolls’ Tea-service.”

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