Small Talk / Toys

From Adversity to Prosperity

Steiff Elephant

Margarete Steiff was born in a small town in Germany in 1847 to a working class family. At just 18 months old, she contracted polio and lost the use of her legs, confining her to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Steiff carried on though, remaining outgoing and cheerful through her childhood. Eventually she was able to take needlework classes and became trained in several forms of tailoring including dressmaking, knitting, crocheting, and embroidery. With the money she saved up from giving zither lessons, she purchased a sewing machine- the first in her village! Because her right arm was weakened by polio, she adapted her sewing machine to work left-handed by turning it around and sewing backwards. How’s that for innovative?

Just for fun, Steiff began sewing felt toy elephants as gifts for children and pincushions for her friends. Her brother Fritz realized that she had a created a marketable product and encouraged her to make more. He took them to toy markets in neighboring cities and they were a hit. The profits from the toy elephants eventually spurred the opening of the Steiff “Felt Toy Factory” in 1893. A testament to Steiff’s perseverance, the company became the largest manufacturer of stuffed toys in Germany, and is still around today.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Bearing It All

Steiff Teddy Bear

An avid hunter, outdoorsman, and statesman, with his signature bristly mustache and furled brow, we often think of President Teddy Roosevelt as a tough and gruff historical figure who carried a big stick. But did you know that the oh-so-cuddly teddy bear was named after him? It all started when he went on a Mississippi bear hunting trip in 1902. Other members of the hunting party had successful outings, but not Roosevelt. Pitying his failure, a hunting guide cornered an elderly bear and tethered it to a tree for Roosevelt to shoot. Being a sportsman and a diplomat, he refused to kill the poor, helpless animal. A political cartoonist at The Washington Post caught wind of this story and illustrated the event. The story captured Americans’ hearts and gave rise to the furry friend we know and love today.

The teddy bear pictured above was photographed with his owner Mable Dixon during the first years of America’s teddy bear craze in 1906. Manufactured by the Steiff Company, he is made of mohair, yarn, and wool felt with glass eyes. According to the recorded oral history that accompanied the bear to T/m, Mable’s mother passed away when she was young. When her father remarried, she was sent to live with her grandparents. Mable recalled that she would hit the bear on the nose when she was frustrated with her father. Notice the worn mohair? Ever-empathetic, we like to think this bear would get Teddy Roosevelt’s stamp of approval: “BULLY!”

A Fair to Remember

Carnival Ride

Who doesn’t love the fair? The lights, the cotton candy, the spinning rides … ok, maybe those aren’t for everyone. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (or Chicago World’s Fair) marked the beginning of traveling carnival companies. The fair exhibited the most cutting edge technologies and innovations of the day and provided a fun diversion for spectators. On the edge of the fair was a pedestrian walkway called the Midway Plaisance, which hosted spectacles such as freak shows, burlesque shows, games, and carnival rides including the first Ferris wheel!

Naturally, the idea of traveling carnivals caught on. In the years that followed the fair, dozens of traveling carnival companies popped up and toured the country one city at a time. Toy companies took notice of the burgeoning industry, and carnival-themed toys began to pop up too. The Hubley Toy Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania was originally founded in 1894 as a train equipment company, but later switched to manufacturing toys like this carnival gondola ride at the turn of the century. A key-wound clockwork mechanism activates the ride, causing the gondolas to slide from side to side as the wheels turn. Carnival toys like this one were a great way to enjoy the rides after the carnival left town (especially if the real thing made you a little queasy!).

Durable Daisy

Schoenhut Doll

We’re going to take a break from Schoenhut’s playsets to take a look at another extension of the toymaker’s offerings: an unbreakable all-wood doll. The jointed Schoenhut All-Wood Perfection Art Doll was advertised in a 1911 catalogue with a “new patent steel spring hinge, having double spring tension and swivel connection.” This meant the doll could pose in many human-like positions. Holes in the bottom of the doll’s feet allowed them to pose flat-footed or on tip toe with a special doll stand.

While wood might not seem all that loveable, Schoenhut’s process of carving and burning away the rough wood left the surface as smooth as glass. The dolls were modeled after real children and painted with enamel oil colors so they could be washed easily after a messy tea party. The first dolls were 16 inches and came either dressed or undressed in modern children’s styles for $2 to $5. T/m’s Schoenhut doll Daisy was donated to the museum by her original owner Dorothy who received her as a Christmas gift. Daisy, who was named after Dorothy’s mother, went on many adventures before coming to us!

Tête-à-Tête with Tête Jumeau Bébé

Tete Jumeau Mechanical Doll

In case your French is a little rusty (ok, we had to look it up too!), tête is the French word for head. This beautiful porcelain doll’s head was made by French dollmaker Pierre Francoise Jumeau in the 1880s. Dolls (or bébés) made by the Jumeau firm were known for their soft, expressive facial features and were most often made of bisque porcelain.

This particular bébé is not only pretty and well-dressed, but she’s also an automaton! The body of the doll contains clockwork mechanisms that are wound with a key to make her move. Automata tend to have somewhat slow and jerky movements that may seem a bit creepy or strange to us today, but dolls like this one were a popular form of entertainment in the 18th to early 20th centuries. It’s a good thing she’s so lovely to look at!

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