Small Talk Tag: Toy

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!”

Roominate Illuminates STEM Skills

Roominate Dollhouse

As Stanford Engineering graduate students, friends Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen saw firsthand the lack of women interested in STEM fields. With only 11% of engineers being women, they knew something had to be done to get girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math at a young age. They realized that the toys they played with as girls were instrumental in developing the basic skills that built their interest in engineering as adults.  After consulting with professors, middle school teachers, and parents, the idea for a new toy was born: Roominate.

Roominate is a colorful building kit, similar to Erector Sets, Legos, or TinkerToys, that includes electrical circuitry, motors, and decorative elements like craft paper and pipe cleaners. The toy appeals to girls age 8 to 12 by combining construction elements with classic dollhouse play, allowing them to creatively build, while developing problem solving and spatial skills. Brooks and Chen developed a prototype and posted the project on the crowd funding website Kickstarter.com.  After just a month, the project earned over $85,000, more than three times their goal of $25,000. Roominate is now being sold in stores nationwide… furthering the company’s mission of “empowering the next generation of STEM women by changing the way girls play.” You go, girls!

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!).

She Was Still A Little Girl Who Had Toys

Anne Frank's Diary, Copyright Anne Frank House, Photographer Cris Toala Olivares, 2010

Like many other Jewish children during Nazi occupation in Europe, Anne Frank gave away her toys before going into hiding with her family. Eventually, she was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she died of typhus. The diary Anne kept is now regarded as one of the most widely-read pieces of Holocaust literature.

Anne gave the family cat and several toys, including her marbles, a tea set, and a book, to one of her non-Jewish childhood friends, Toosje Kupers, because she feared they would “end up in the wrong hands.” Kupers, who is now 83 years old, found the items last year while moving and decided to give them to the Anne Frank House Museum. The toys are on display as part of an exhibit at the Kunsthal Art Gallery in Rotterdam: The Second World War in 100 Objects is on view now through May 5, 2014.

Photo: Anne Frank’s Diary, Copyright Anne Frank House, Photographer Cris Toala Olivares, 2010

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