Small Talk Tag: Toy

Tête-à-Tête with Tête Jumeau Bébé

Tete Jumeau Mechanical Doll

In case your French is a little rusty (ok, we had to look it up too!), tête is the French word for head. This beautiful porcelain doll’s head was made by French dollmaker Pierre Francoise Jumeau in the 1880s. Dolls (or bébés) made by the Jumeau firm were known for their soft, expressive facial features and were most often made of bisque porcelain.

This particular bébé is not only pretty and well-dressed, but she’s also an automaton! The body of the doll contains clockwork mechanisms that are wound with a key to make her move. Automata tend to have somewhat slow and jerky movements that may seem a bit creepy or strange to us today, but dolls like this one were a popular form of entertainment in the 18th to early 20th centuries. It’s a good thing she’s so lovely to look at!

Sets of Wooden Wonders

Schoenhut Alligator

In the late 1800s, Albert Schoenhut expanded his company’s production exclusively from toy pianos to include other musical instruments, soldiers, dolls, and boats. In 1903 he added a wooden toy set known as the “Humpty Dumpty Circus.” The circus, named after a popular 19th century play by George Washington Lafayette Fox, became the company’s most popular product.

The circus initially included Humpty Dumpty the clown, and a barrel, chair, and ladder. Later, Schoenhut added circus performers, a ringmaster, acrobats, a lion tamer, and several animals to encourage sales. Humpty Dumpty, the performers, and animals were fully jointed with elastic cord allowing children to position their heads and limbs. The circus, ranging in price from 50 cents to six dollars, was a hit nationally and internationally with exports to Europe, Australia, and South Africa. Believed to be one of the first play sets developed in the United States, Schoenhut followed up with others, including this alligator. Stay tuned to see its set: Teddy Roosevelt’s Adventures in Africa!

Toys That Run Like Clockwork

Tete Jumeau Mechanical Doll

With the prevalence of Furbys and Tickle-Me-Elmos in toy stores today, it’s not too hard to imagine toys that move and make noise. But how about a doll from the 1800s that can walk, row, swim, or write?! It doesn’t just happen in the movies, they really existed!

Automata are figures or dolls with clockwork mechanisms that allow them to move, write, and even draw pictures! The Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey is home to the Murtogh D. Guiness Collection of 750 mechanical musical instruments and automata.

Stay tuned… The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures has several automata in our collection that we’ll be featuring here over the next several months like this Tete Jumeau Doll.

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!

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