Small Talk Tag: Playsets

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.

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!

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)!