Small Talk / Toys

Sunday Funday

Noah's Ark

How did you spend your Sunday last week? Maybe you went to the park, caught up on some reading, played Wii Sports Resort, or watched Game of Thrones… whatever you did, we hope it was relaxing! For children in Victorian times, Sunday was not a time for play, except of course with Sunday toys. In many households, Sunday was considered a day of rest and worship. Thus, Sunday toys were religious in nature and based off stories in the Bible.

Noah’s Ark was an extremely popular Sunday toy, complete with tiny carved and painted animal pairs. German cottage industries worked tirelessly to meet demand for these popular playthings, so much so that the tiny carved animals became known by the workers who made them as “misery beasts.” As the world grew more industrialized in the 19th and 20th centuries, toy companies like R. Bliss Manufacturing Company and Schoenhut also began making Noah’s Ark sets. Playing with a limited variety of toys on Sunday must have become tedious at some point, but play is all about using your imagination, right? We suppose some Victorian children didn’t exactly stick to the biblical storyline!

Bliss-Ful Toys

Bliss Dollhouse

Founded in the 1830s in Rhode Island, the R. Bliss Manufacturing Company crafted a variety of wooden products in its 100 year history ranging from piano screws to tennis racquets. The most famous (and of course our favorite) Bliss products were wooden toys and elaborate dollhouses. The company’s founder Rufus Bliss was a trained carpenter who introduced new technologies to his craft in the form of manufacturing techniques; one invention was a machine for cutting wood screws that made the process faster and more accurate.

The hallmark of Bliss toys was the colorful chromolithographed paper applied to the wooden pieces. This new printing technology not only added colorful, decorative detail to the toys, but also helped Bliss achieve financial success through mass production. When added to a sturdy and attractive wooden dollhouse, the chromolithographed designs made for one of the most beautiful toy lines on the market. Today, Bliss toys and dollhouses are highly collectible and can often be identified by a trademark or logo placed within the design.

Around the World in 175 Days

Aeroplane Race

Ninety years ago today, eight dapper pilots began the first flight around the world in four airplanes that were later nicknamed the “World Fliers:” the Seattle, Boston, New Orleans, and Chicago. After 74 pit stops, Chicago and New Orleans completed the journey over 175 days with an in-air flight time of 371 hours and 11 minutes. That may seem slow compared to today’s world record of 41 hours and 7 minutes, but in 1924 (still three years before Charles Lindbergh’s famous solo flight across the Atlantic) the sensational success of the World Fliers fueled excitement about airplanes.

Capitalizing on this interest (do you see a common theme appearing here?!), Wolverine Supply & Manufacturing Company began making “Aeroplane Race ‘Round the World,” a tin board game that mapped out the planes’ exact route. Armed with their own miniature World Flier, two to four players spun a dial to fly around the board hoping to avoid forced landings, storms, or any of the other maladies that grounded the real pilots on their journey. Much like the Oregon Trail video game for children of the 1980s and 1990s, children had fun while learning about the actual hardships of aerial circumnavigation. Although, unlike the Oregon Trail and the real World Flier pilots, there was no risk of dysentery from drinking lagoon water!

Dollhouses for You and Me

Bliss Dollhouse and Gottschalk Dollhouse

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, two companies dominated the dollhouse market: the R. Bliss Manufacturing Company of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and the Moritz Gottschalk company of Marienberg, Germany. Both companies were well known for their colorful houses, which sold at a lower price due to the decrease in production costs (thank you mass production!), making the toys available to a wide range of social classes.

This past summer, T/m hosted Antiques Roadshow and appraiser Marshall Martin to examine a Bliss dollhouse and a Gottschalk dollhouse from the museum collection. Catch it on your local PBS Station on Monday April 7 at 7pm CST or stay tuned here for a link to the segment.

There Once Was A Teddy in Africa

Teddy Roosevelt's Adventures in Africa Playset

After being succeeded in office by William Howard Taft, the former president Theodore Roosevelt set out for Africa to hunt big game and collect specimens for the Smithsonian Institution. Known to history as the Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition, the party began their journey 105 years ago this month and included Roosevelt’s son Kermit who served as official photographer, three representatives from the Smithsonian (a retired Army surgeon and field naturalist, and two zoologists), two famous big-game hunters, a wildlife photographer and filmmaker, and several hundred porters and guides. They collected 1,100 specimens, 500 of which were big game; Teddy and Kermit personally collected 17 lions, 11 elephants, and 20 rhinoceros.

Roosevelt’s travels were memorialized in several ways from the silent film Roosevelt in Africa to Scribner’s Magazine’s articles that were later gathered together and published as a book, African Game Tails, in 1909. That same year, Schoenhut Company introduced their tribute to the expedition: Teddy Roosevelt’s Adventures in Africa Playset. Produced until 1912, the set included a doctor, naturalist, taxidermist, and native guides. Some of the playset parts were repurposed from the popular Humpty Dumpy Circus Playset, but the rhinos, zebras, hyenas, gazelles, deer, and gorillas were introduced for the first time. Bet you can’t guess which one is Teddy Roosevelt (hint: he’s carrying a rifle instead of a big stick)!

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