Small Talk / Toys

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)!

A Dollhouse Mystery

New Rochelle Mystery Dollhouse

Much of T/m’s collection of over 46,000 toys was amassed by co-founder Mary Harris Francis. With an affinity for play, she began collecting dollhouses in the 1970s, starting with the New Rochelle Mystery House. Little did she know that within a few years she would have enough dollhouses and toys to open a museum!

This stately 12 room dollhouse gets its name from its place of origin- New Rochelle, New York. What exactly is so “mysterious” about it? The term mystery house was coined by dollhouse historian Flora Gill Jacobs to describe dollhouses with unknown origins, many of which were handmade. That’s exactly the case with the New Rochelle Mystery House. While similar dollhouses have been spotted in late 19th century F.A.O. Schwarz catalogs, the painted number “1074” above the door suggests that it was custom made for a little girl who lived at that same address number. Stay tuned for more mysterious dollhouse details…

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!).

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