Small Talk

The Obadiah Collection

18k gold tea pot with ivory handle chained to brazier, 1989

By Laura Taylor, Curator of Interpretation

In one of the largest cities in the world, Obadiah Fisher (1941-2005) made a name for himself by creating tiny art. Working in his studio loft in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, the transplanted Brooklynite produced the Obadiah Collection, a catalog of historic silver and gold pieces in fine-scale, paying homage to the great silversmiths of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Obadiah Fisher came to the Big Apple as an accomplished sculptor and jewelry maker in 1966. He found work in the city’s commercial jewelry industry in both manufacturing and design but eventually left to pursue freelance opportunities. The Metropolitan Museum of Art commissioned him to produce models of Egyptian jewelry for the blockbuster exhibition Treasures of Tutankhamun (King Tut), and he worked with both the Brooklyn Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art on reproducing Egyptian and Peruvian jewelry.

In the late 1970s, a studio visit from Elisabett Andrews would change the course of Fisher’s career. Andrews, a fine-scale porcelain artist, was there to view his custom-designed jewelry and suggested that he try making fine-scale silver miniatures. Intrigued, Fisher selected some full-scale works to reproduce in 1:12 scale. His first works were sold by famed dollhouse expert Flora Gill Jacobs in the gift shop of her Washington Toy and Dollhouse Museum (in the District of Columbia).

Sterling silver oval scalloped Tray after Paul Revere, circa 1797, Date Unknown

Fisher became hooked and amassed a library of books and magazines featuring historic designs for research. He always started by making a pencil sketch and determining what details made up the essence of the piece. Employing the lost wax casting process, he carved a wax model of the piece and then created a rubber mold, allowing for 10% shrinkage. A commercial company cast the miniatures, and Fisher polished them himself.  He began teaching wax model making at his own private school where he was known as “Obie” to his students.

T/m’s collection contains 65 works in silver and gold by Fisher, including one of his masterpieces, a William III Monteith Bowl after Benjamin Pyne, circa 1699. Measuring just three quarters of an inch in height and 1 3/16 inches in width, the bowl features eight ornate scallops on the rim from which punch cups were hung. The bowl contained water so the cups could be rinsed between wine courses or chilled for cold wine.

Sterling silver William III Monteith Bowl after Benjamin Pyne, circa 1699, Date Unknown

Fisher described his work in 1992 to writer Lillian Wachtel: “With my visors on, I go off into a world of tiny detail that can’t be seen by the naked eye. My vision is narrowed down to just those diminutive areas. It feels like a bit of pleasant escapism, like being in a whole other world.”

T/m continues to compile digital archives for fine-scale artists and welcomes contributions from the public. If you knew Obadiah Fisher and have any biographical information, stories, or photographs you would like to share, please contact us at: info@toyandminiaturemuseum.org.

Obadiah Fisher lights up the room at the opening of the exhibit Small Wonders: The Delightful World of Miniatures at the National Geographic Society’s Explorer Hall, 1987. Photograph courtesy of William R. Robertson

Sources:

Cook, Jan Leslie. “Marvels in Miniature.” Historic Preservation (August 1985): 28.

Frank, Alice and Lee Frank. A Reference Guide to Miniature Makers Mark. Minneapolis, MN: Thomas-Shore, Inc., 1996.

Wachtel, Lillian. “A Silversmith on the Waterfront.” Miniature Collector (August 1992): 44-46.

Winter, Marguerite. “Silver in Miniature.” Miniature Collector (September/October 1995): 17.

 

Dollhouse Histories: The Pierce Dollhouse, 1868

Dollhouse Histories: The Pierce Dollhouse, 1868

By Laura Taylor, T/m Curator of Interpretation, with assistance from MaryJean Allen

Children’s dollhouses were a weakness for T/m co-founder Mary Harris Francis. She acquired her first, the New Rochelle Mystery House, in 1974, and told her husband that she would “never need another.” Luckily for us, she kept collecting! Pristine condition or fixer-upper, Mary Harris Francis loved them all.

Today, T/m has over 250 children’s dollhouses in its collection! There are far too many to display them all, but our recent temporary exhibit, A Space of Our Own: Dollhouses of the 20th Century (April 20, 2019-January 27, 2020), allowed us to show off some recent acquisitions that had never been exhibited before.

In the 19th century, custom-built dollhouses became a popular toy for children of wealthy families, both in Europe and America. One such example is the Pierce Dollhouse, commissioned by Charles Stewart Pierce for his granddaughters, Mary Louise (1864-1872) and Annie Maria (1866-1888). The successful owner of the Pierce Lumber company in Buffalo, New York, Mr. Pierce had the dollhouse built by one of his cabinet maker employees as a replica of the family home at 675 Delaware Ave. in 1868. Delaware Avenue was known as “Millionaire Row” back then.

Pierce Family Home, 675 Delaware Ave., Buffalo, New York

The dollhouse is quite an impressive size—54 ¾ inches tall, 43 ¼ inches wide, and 31 inches deep—and possesses a mansard roof, cupola, and dormer windows. The roof is covered with over 1000 individually cut miniature shingles. It is accessed through two hinged doors that fold flat on either side of the house. A separate panel covers the front and upper halls. This panel includes the front door with enamel knob and a transom window stamped with the street number 675.

The house has six rooms: a front hall, a parlor, a dining room, an upper hall, a nursery, and a bedroom. Mary Louise Pierce was blind, and the dollhouse may have assisted her in learning about the Pierce family home by touch. Sadly, she lived only eight years. The dollhouse was then played with by Annie Maria Pierce, and then the third sister, Helen Loud Pierce.

The dollhouse was eventually stored in the coach house where it rested for 70 years. In 1963, the dollhouse was saved by Mrs. George (Jeannine) Steinmetz, the wife of Charles Pierce Stewart’s great-great grandson. She and George’s aunt, Jane Pierce Whiteside, made the trip to Buffalo to rescue the dollhouse before the original house at 675 Delaware was torn down. She purchased the dollhouse at auction for the sum of $11.

Jeannine lovingly restored the dollhouse, furnishing it with period-appropriate pieces. She even created miniature versions of the family portraits to hang in the small rooms through the clever use of photography. In 2014, Jeannine’s daughters, Carolyn Griffith and MaryJean Allen, donated the dollhouse to T/m along with oil paintings of Mary Louise and Anna Maria and a scrapbook full of memories.

Mary Louise Pierce, Artist Unknown, c. 1870

Annie Maria Pierce, Artist Unknown, c. 1870

Stay tuned for dollhouse histories from the A Space of Our Own exhibit in the coming weeks!

 

 

 

Toy Stitchers: A Passion for Toy Sewing Machines of Bygone Days

Long before today’s world of online ordering, children anxiously awaited the delivery of mail order catalogs. When they finally arrived, the toy section was excitedly scrutinized for the birthday or holiday wish list.  Tucked in the pages of sales catalogs dating from the 1880s to the 1960s were girl-intended play items geared for “Good Little Housekeepers,” such as dolls, tea sets, play stoves, and TOY SEWING MACHINES.

With names like Little Lady, Junior Miss, American Girl, Baby, and Sotoy, the virtues of the toy sewing machine were branded to entice a purchase. Descriptions such as “instructive and practical,” “teach little daughter to sew dolly’s clothes,” “sew like mother,” and “excellent for use in kindergartens and primary schools” were selling points to justify the purchase price of 45 cents and up!

Old ads are great resources to help collectors document and date toy sewing machines.

Today, the motivation to acquire these prized toy sewing machines (also known as TSMs) is varied.  Some seek to replace a long-lost childhood toy or to acquire one never received in childhood. Some are smitten by the aesthetic beauty, while others are intrigued by the machine’s mechanics. History buffs appreciate the opportunity that TSMs afford to examine the changing roles of females through the twentieth century. Other TSM history detectives immerse themselves in details of a specific manufacturer, some of which were run by multi-generation family members and produced the machines for many decades through two World Wars.  Still others find a toy sewing machine the perfect companion in a sewing room or as an accessory for their beloved sewing hobby. Today, passionate collectors include both women and men.

A trio of beautiful TSMs: F.W. Müller Model Numbers. 10, 15, and 20, Berlin Germany, c. 1902 and later, shown with a reproduction of a Müller leaflet 1910-1914.

So what distinguishes a toy sewing machine from its adult counterpart? One would expect the small size to be the distinguishing factor, but since some hand-operated adult machines were very small (even smaller than a typical toy model), size isn’t always a reliable determiner.  TSM collectors tend to agree that the best qualifier of a bona fide toy sewing machine is the manufacturer’s intention, meaning the machine was advertised for use as a toy or for use with children. Some manufacturers specified that their products were not toys, but real sewing machines for girls. For those manufacturers, the use of the word “toy” may have implied lower quality.  Some enterprising manufacturers promoted their machines to be used by both adults and children (“convenient for ladies while traveling and for little girls”), thus increasing clientele. In some cases, sewing machine companies produced both full-size adult machines as well as the smaller child’s machine, potentially trying to encourage brand loyalty for a lifetime.

Singer No. 20, the first child’s sewing machine produced by this famous company in 1910; Trade cards show both children and women using this model.

A common feature of TSMs is that they use a single spool of thread to make a removable chain stitch by either a revolving or reciprocating hook. Most adult machines use two threads to create a more permanent lockstitch. Finally, a large majority of vintage TSMs are powered by manually turning the hand wheel, while their adult counterparts of the 1900s were treadle- or electric-powered. Early models of electric TSMs are uncommon (Thankfully, in this writer’s opinion!), and a child’s treadle is indeed a rare find compared to the typical hand-operated model.

Two-year-old Hilary Abel with a Little Tot child’s treadle sewing machine. The sewing table is 21″ high. Engraved into the stitch plate is “Cleveland, O. Pat. Nov.28, 1882.”

Hundreds of toy sewing machine variations (including color, shape, size, decorative designs, manufacturer, and construction materials) were mass produced in numerous countries during the span of 75 or so years in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This certainly provides something for every toy sewing machine lover’s taste and budget, and are easily located with the help of today’s technology.

Margie Abel with her collection, on exhibit at The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures through June 3, 2019

All TSMs shown are from Margie Abel’s collection. Anyone interested in toy sewing machines is welcome to join other kindred spirits with a membership in TSII (Toy Stitchers International, Inc.), the first and largest organization of TSM collectors in the world.  The Toy Stitcher is the official publication of TSII.  Website: www.toystitchers.org

Margie Abel
Toy Sewing Machine Collector

New Acquisitions of Fine-Scale Miniatures

Did you ever wonder how T/m has built such an amazing collection of fine-scale miniatures? Barbara Marshall, the museum’s co-founder started collecting miniatures in the 1950s with a 1:12 scale rocking chair made by Eric Pearson. In the 1970s, Mrs. Marshall got involved with the contemporary fine-scale miniature movement and developed a reputation for being a generous patron with an eye for great art. Many miniature artists talk about how Mrs. Marshall would ask them what they had always dreamed of making, then commission them to do just that.

Barbara Marshall continued to develop the collection by attending the largest and most well-regarded miniature show in the country, Chicago International. Museum staff members remember Mrs. Marshall returning from her annual trips to Chicago with a couple of shopping bags full of exquisite miniatures.

Mrs. Marshall retired from the museum in 2010, and the museum staff took a hiatus from collecting miniatures to focus on a major renovation.  That changed in 2017 when T/m hosted Miniature Masterworks, a juried showcase and sale. Sixty-seven artists came to Kansas City from around the world to participate, and many of them entered the competition for the Barbara Marshall Award for Artistic Achievement. With its incredible success in bringing artists and collectors together, T/m recently announced the next Miniature Masterworks, scheduled for September 17-19, 2021.

T/m curators Amy McKune and Laura Taylor selected a small number of artworks to purchase during Miniature Masterworks 2017, then scheduled a trip to the Chicago International Show in April 2018. Laura had attended the show twice before, most recently in 2011, but the 2018 show was the first for Amy. We knew many of the exhibiting artists from their participation in Miniature Masterworks.

Before leaving for Chicago, we identified some collecting goals. We wanted to acquire new work by artists already represented in the collection to exemplify how their work has evolved since 2010. We also wanted to discover new artists whose work meets Mrs. Marshall’s exacting standards. While we did not have the resources to return with two shopping bags full of objects, we did have the funds to make a few strategic purchases, some of which are featured in this post. There is also a new case in the miniature gallery to highlight new acquisitions, including some of those purchased in 2017 and 2018.

Next month, we’ll once again be attending Chicago International. Stay tuned for a post later this year that will highlight our 2019 purchases.

lowboard

This 6-3/4” x 2-1/4” lowboard by Spanish artist Fernando Setien is based on a 1959 Paola Lowboard by Belgian furniture designer Oswald Vermaercke. The lowboard is named for Paola who married the Prince of Liege in 1959. She became the queen of Belgium when her husband, King Albert II, ascended to the throne in 1993. Setien has been creating fine-scale miniatures for only a few years, but his work displays a great deal of sophistication and artistry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

aquarium

With the financial support of our dedicated volunteers, T/m purchased this 3-15/16″ x 11-15/16″ aquarium made by Miyuki Kobayashi (Japanese). Kobayashi molds the aquatic life out of clay, then positions them in poured resin. The colorful fish appear to be swimming in water, just as they do in a full-scale aquarium.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

candlestick

Barbara Marshall has been purchasing exquisite silver and gold pieces from Jens Torp (Danish, working in England) since 1995. This 1-13/16” high candlestick features the artist’s own design, which he created during a master class he was teaching at Miniature I Tune (www.miniatureintune.com), an international summer school in Greve, Denmark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since 1981, Jane Graber (American) has worked full-time creating fine-scale miniatures, and Mrs. Marshall has been her patron almost from the start. Many of the artworks by Graber in T/m’s collection are redware and stoneware. She only recently began working in the Arts and Crafts style of these three 3/4” tall daffodil vases.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Doll Gallery

This month, we made some big changes to The Doll Gallery. Some old favorites have gone to storage for a time so that they can be protected from light, which will help preserve them for future generations of museum visitors. More than 30 dolls have come out of storage to take their place, including a rare, late 19th century baby doll by Leo Moss.

When Myla Perkins decided to sell several Leo Moss dolls from her collection in the spring of 2018, T/m curators sprang into action to try to add one to our collection. We were very fortunate to be able to buy a 10″ baby doll that Perkins had included in both volumes of her seminal publication, Black Dolls 1820-1991: An Identification and Value Guide. Unlike some of Moss’ dolls which are named for the child they represent, this baby doll is unmarked. We do know, however, that collector and doll-maker Betty Formaz purchased about 30 Moss dolls, including this one, directly from the Moss family in the 1970s. Because its gender is undiscernible, we call the doll “Baby Moss.”

Leo Moss, a handyman in Macon, Georgia, made his portrait dolls in the likeness of family, friends, and members of the community. His dolls are classified as character dolls because they have realistic facial features and expressions that convey specific emotions. Many Leo Moss dolls portray crying children, but Baby Moss is depicted as a happy baby. There are a couple of theories about why some of Moss’s dolls appear to be crying; the more popular theory is that Moss would include tears if his young model became distressed and started crying while Moss was working on the doll.

X-ray images and CAT scans done by diagnostic radiologist Dr. Steve Eilenberg of three Leo Moss dolls in 2014 revealed intriguing information about Moss’s techniques. (https://aperturephotoarts.com/leo-moss/) The three dolls studied all showed commercially-made composition doll heads, covered with sculpted papier-mâché to achieve the models’ likenesses. The original composition heads are not discernable in the finished dolls. Using this method, Leo Moss produced dolls of exquisite artistry.

In addition to Baby Moss, the gallery includes five other dolls with papier-mâché heads, ranging in date from about 1830 to 1895. These dolls feature molded heads rather than Moss’s sculpted technique. Two 26″ dolls with papier-mâché heads and cloth bodies look like they could have been made by the same company. Yet one was produced in Germany by Müller & Strassburger, while the other was made by Ludwig Greiner, a German-born American. Greiner immigrated to the United States in the 1830s, and in the 1840s, started his company in Philadelphia. In 1858, Greiner received a patent for his method of reinforcing the papier-mâché doll heads. The patent was extended in 1872, so this doll’s markings indicate it was made before that date. It was common for dolls with papier-mâché heads to have hand-made cloth bodies, but this Greiner doll has a body designed by his friend and fellow-Philadelphian, Jacob Lachmann.

We hope you’ll get a chance to visit T/m and our updated Doll Gallery. Check back later this year for blog posts on some of the other featured dolls and the people who made them.

Amy McKune
Curator of Collections
The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures