Small Talk Tag: Victorian

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

mechanical toy oarsman

Patented in 1869 by Nathan S. Warner, this mechanical oarsman toy was the first of its kind. Warner worked for a sewing machine manufacturer and used his technical know-how to secure design patents for several clockwork-mechanized toys. The patent allowed E.R. Ives and Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut to produce this mechanized, mustached rower toy, which became a hit among kids and adults alike.

Once the toy is wound up and placed in water, the oarsman’s torso moves back and forth along with his arms, which are attached to the oars. The movement of the oars propels the boat through the water. When the rudder on the back of the boat is turned, the oarsman will row in a circle; when the rudder is straight, he rows in a straight line. Mechanical oarsman toys were manufactured by several other firms as well, so don’t be surprised if you come across some interesting variations. In fact, radio controlled versions are still manufactured today!

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

victorian sunday toys

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!

Toys That Run Like Clockwork

jumeau automaton 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!

Automaton dolls or figures have 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.

Josephine’s Repurposed Play

josephine bird decorated her dollhouse

Josephine Bird decorated her dollhouse with the finest, traditional ormolu furnishings alongside objects she re-appropriated from everyday life. Dolls visiting the residents of the house may have rested their feet on some particularly cushy chairs. That’s because the chairs were originally meant for pins, similar to the tomato design that is believed to have originated in the 15th century, but gained popularity, along with other shapes (fans, dolls, shoes, fruits, and vegetables), in the Victorian era!

The guitar that the dolls jammed on probably didn’t make the greatest music. The guitar can be pulled apart and was likely a candy case or Christmas ornament sold at her father’s Emery, Bird, Thayer Department Store. Josephine’s repurposing is like the Victorian version of using those plastic pizza box saver thingies as tables for your Barbies or Calico Critters!

Page 2 of 3123