Small Talk Tag: Toy

Skittle Me This

Steiff Skittles

Perched happily on top of wooden platforms, this rooster and his brood of eight colorful hens are waiting for someone to throw the cheese and hit a floorer. If that sounds like jibberish, you might want to brush up on the lingo for the game of skittles! While we think of skittles as a candy that lets you taste the rainbow, skittles is also a game related to bowling. The game has been played for centuries and there are several different regional versions. In Old English skittles, players throw a rounded piece of heavy wood called a cheese to knock over pins at the end of an alley. In other versions, players roll a small ball to knock over the pins.

The owner of these Steiff Company rooster and chicken skittles probably didn’t have the best aim, judging from the undamaged, brightly colored felt. Steiff produced skittles sets featuring felt animals from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. While the game of skittles has waned in popularity in recent decades, it is still played in the United Kingdom and is known as a game that is friendly and accessible, even for newcomers… just don’t call it bowling!

Design for the Masses

Gottschalk Dollhouse

Like a broken (polka) record, we seem to talk a lot about the German toy industry here on Small Talk. Just goes to show how prolific it used to be! One of the industry’s most important producers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was Moritz Gottschalk company. Gottschalk is best known for its beautifully designed dollhouses, which mirrored the architectural styles of the day. The company also sold equally beautiful toy kitchens, general stores, horse stables, forts, and more. Like other toy companies in Germany, Gottschalk wanted to reach other European markets as well as America, so they offered their toy line via catalog. The catalogs provided model numbers, dates and specifications which makes identifying these gems over a century later a breeze!

The earliest line of Gottschalk toys were wooden dollhouses with blue painted roofs, chromolithographed paper facades, and Victorian architectural details. Mass production techniques made the manufacturing process faster and more efficient. Around 1910, the company switched to houses with red painted roofs and hand-painted facades. Seems a little counterintuitive, right? While no one really knows why this shift to a slower production method occurred, dollhouse historians believe the changes reflected popular taste.

The Secret Story of Toys Revealed

Secret Story of Toys

Much of T/m’s toy collection was produced by hand, whether in a cottage industry or on an assembly line. Workers in the 19th and early 20th centuries (some of them children themselves) painstakingly carved wooden animals, painted dollhouse roofs, or sewed doll clothing. But times have changed and so have toys and production methods. In an age where you can 3D print just about anything, we were surprised to learn about a group of toy artists that sculpt everything by hand, right here in Kansas City!

Local filmmaker Anthony Ladesich recently introduced us to the artists in his short documentary The Secret Story of Toys. The piece, selected for the Kansas City Film Festival last month, spotlights Kansas City toy makers Jason Frailey, Adam Smith, and Adrienne Smith. The team’s toy making process involves sculpting clay and casting from molds with an intense attention to detail… and we thought working here was cool!

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.

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