Small Talk Tag: Toy

Toy Town, USA

Noah's Ark

Just like Santa’s workshop at the North Pole is today, the small town of Winchendon, Massachusetts was once home to the largest production center for wood toys in the world. Winchendon received the nickname “Toy Town” thanks to the Converse Toy & Woodware Company (later known as Morton E. Converse Company). Founded in the 1870s by Morton E. Converse, the company mass-produced every type of wooden toy good little girls and boys could imagine, from dollhouses to rocking horses. In fact, if you visit Winchendon today, you’ll find Clyde II, an oversized replica of a hobby horse originally carved by Converse.

Converse got into the toy business after carving a set of doll dishes for his ailing daughter. After her recovery, Converse added wooden legs to a collar box, creating a tea table with a place inside to store the wooden dishes. This sense of ingenuity and adaptive reuse served Converse well. The company produced over 250 kinds of toys before closing in the 1930s. Not to be confused with the popular shoe of the same name, Converse toys can sometimes be identified by the “Converse” printed directly on the wooden structure.

Meet Our Friendship Doll

Mrs F

As part of the 1927 international doll exchange between the U.S. and Japan, 58 Japanese dolls traveled to the U.S., and were distributed coast to coast amongst museums and public venues. On a diplomatic mission to promote peace and understanding between the two countries, these ichimatsu ningyo became known as the Japanese Friendship Dolls.

Just who were they? Let us introduce you… each doll represented a different Japanese city, prefecture or territory. Expertly designed and constructed by Japanese artists, the dolls stand 32” high, have wigs of human hair, and glass eyes. Each had her own set of accessories, including a traditional tea set, travel trunk, and a richly styled kimono. Look closely at each doll’s kimono to find a unique mon, or crest, repeated in the pattern (sort of like the Houses at Hogwarts)!

The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures is home to Miss Fukushima, one of the Friendship Dolls representing a Japanese prefecture. We’re proud to have “Miss F.” here at the museum, as she is one of the most intact of the original 1927 group. Over 40 of Miss Fukushima’s original accessories came with her to T/m including two tea sets, a sewing kit, and even a booklet entitled “Japanese Children and Dolls’ Tea-service.”

Strike a Pose

French Fashion Dolls

While we think all of our dolls are quite fashionable, a special set of Parisian dolls take the cake! Dating from 1900 to 1917, the dolls produced by Mesdames Louise Lafitte and Augusta Désirat represent different fashions and themes from “nurse” to “theatre.” The dolls were sold in the United States at the Gimbels department store as “style mannequins.”

The dolls’ bodies are wire armatures with wax heads and simple painted features to guarantee that the clothes and accessories are the star! And star they do; the two sisters styled their dolls with only the finest materials: ostrich feathers, fur, velvet, mohair, lace, and silk. Each doll strikes a pose on a round wood base that is often marked with a year, signature, and stamp (which really helps us out here at T/m!). Whether standing or sitting on a chair or cushion, these ladies are runway ready.

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.

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