Small Talk / Toys

Wooden Wonders

Schoenhut Circus Clown

Many of the toys unwrapped this holiday season are made out of plastic, battery operated, or contain some sort of glowing screen. This obviously wasn’t always the case—some of the earliest American toy companies’ playthings consisted of simple, painted wood. The first major American company to break into the German-dominated toy-making industry was the Schoenhut Company. The Philadelphia company was founded in 1872 by Albert Schoenhut, a German immigrant who came from a long line of toymakers. Although his father and grandfather focused on making wooden rocking horses, wagons, and dolls, Schoenhut branched out into toy pianos.

By 1912, with an extensive line of toys, Schoenhut Company was America’s largest toy company and the first to begin exporting toys to Germany. The Schoenhut Company still exists today, although they now exclusively make toy musical instruments, including toy pianos. Albert Schoenhut’s legacy is not only an important part of American history, but also continues to influence musicians today.

What’s Olds is New Again

Curved Dash Oldsmobile

Because we don’t really see vehicles like the Curved-Dash Oldsmobile on the road anymore, it’s hard to believe that the full-size version of this toy was the most popular car in the beginning of the 20th century. Built between 1901 and 1907, the sled-like “horseless carriage” was the first mass-produced, gasoline engine automobile in the world. The wide-spread popularity of the new technology influenced toy companies like ACME Toy Works to emulate the Oldsmobile’s details, right down to the tiller steering and turn crank to start the engine!

Toys, after all, are a sign of the times in which they were made. What child wouldn’t want to drive their own newfangled automobile in 1903? The best-selling truck in 2013 was Ford’s F-Series, so it is no coincidence that parents can find small versions and large versions at the toy store!

Pretty Little Angel Sulphide

Angel Sulfide Marble

Highly-coveted sulphide marbles get their name from the figure inside that looks like it’s made out of sulfur. Largely manufactured in German cottage industries from the mid-19th to the early 20th century, the tiny figures are actually made of porcelain clay. Animal sulphides are the most common type. People, numbers, or angels, like the one pictured here from the Larry and Cathy Svacina Collection, are harder to find.

Because antique sulphides were handmade, it’s not uncommon to find flawed or off-centered figures. Others have trapped air bubbles or pontil marks. While some collectors may seek out these imperfect gems, others believe they are, as these heavenly hosts say, “no good.”

Josephine’s Repurposed Play

Pincushion Chair and Guitar from Josephine Bird's Dollhouse

Josephine Bird decorated her dollhouse with the finest, traditional ormolu furnishings alongside objects she re-appropriated from everyday life. Dolls visiting the residents of the house may have rested their feet on some particularly cushy chairs. That’s because the chairs were originally meant for pins, similar to the tomato design that is believed to have originated in the 15th century, but gained popularity, along with other shapes (fans, dolls, shoes, fruits, and vegetables), in the Victorian era!

The guitar that the dolls jammed on probably didn’t make the greatest music. The guitar can be pulled apart and was likely a candy case or Christmas ornament sold at her father’s Emery, Bird, Thayer Department Store. Josephine’s repurposing is like the Victorian version of using those plastic pizza box saver thingies as tables for your Barbies or Calico Critters!

Josephine’s Dollhouse Treasure Trove

Josephine Bird Dollhouse

This stately Victorian bookcase-style dollhouse stood silent on the third floor of a grand Kansas City home, forgotten for a generation. When Mrs. Joseph Hall first unpacked the family heirloom, she discovered dozens of antique candy boxes containing the dollhouse’s original, intricate furnishings. Good thing the candy was gone… there’s nothing worse than finding last year’s Halloween candy melted to the pillowcase you used as a bag. Yuck!

The elaborate dollhouse belonged to Josephine Bird, the mother-in-law of Mrs. Hall. Josephine was born in 1889 to Joseph Taylor Bird Sr., an investor in the Emery, Bird, Thayer Department Store. The department store, located here in Kansas City, was once heralded as “The Southwest’s Greatest Merchandisers.” Josephine’s dollhouse is filled with items repurposed from the store and gathered on her world travels. Stay tuned as we rediscover all the treasures Mrs. Hall found!

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