Small Talk

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:

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.


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.















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.




















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 (, 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. ( 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

Tracing the Genealogy of a Doll

Imagine going up into the attic of an old house and finding a treasure that had not been seen for years. You might become a “history detective” to investigate more about the mysterious object and want to learn about the person who owned this treasure. You might even display this wonderful thing to share with the world.Harriet's Doll

That’s the story of Harriet Penney’s doll, a new exhibit at The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures.  This treasure is a 1900s adult-looking doll designed in the style of Charles Gibson’s beautiful magazine illustrations of that era.  This “Gibson Girl” doll, manufactured by German doll maker Kestner, was the Barbie® of the early 20th century with a full wardrobe and lots of accessories. She has a jointed body made of soft kid leather and a bisque head. Harriet’s doll is not only beautiful, but she has an attitude. And Harriet’s doll was – and is – fabulous!

The last year, I’ve been working with Museum staff to explore the history of Harriet’s doll and learn all we can about Harriet Penney and her family. Many questions were answered, and there are great stories to share!

In the exhibit you will learn that Harriet Penney was born in 1898, a time when major changes were happening in America with technology, lifestyles, and attitudes.  Harriet was given the doll in about 1910 and enjoyed playing with her in the attic playroom of her grandfather’s house in Washington, Kansas, along with her sister.  In 1926, Harriet married Charles Roop, and they had three daughters.  After Harriet died, daughter Patricia inherited the doll, and later donated it to T/M.

Harriet's DollWhen the Museum received Harriet’s doll, our curators heard lots of family stories from Patricia. They heard about Harriet’s mother, Ora Yoder Penney, a free-thinking modern woman for her time.  She was a postmaster in a nearby small town, worked in her father’s store, wore bloomers, played softball, and was a role model for her two daughters. In 1904, Ora was widowed and moved from Oklahoma to Kansas with her daughters to live with Grandfather Yoder, who built a large house to accommodate his growing family. In our research, we learned that he was a generous man who purchased not only one, but a pair of Gibson Girl dolls: a brunette for Harriet and blond-haired one for her sister, Gertrude. (The location of Gertrude’s doll is unknown at this time.) But there was still much to learn about Harriet and her doll, and many unanswered questions. Who was Grandfather Yoder that he could afford such expensive toys? What were those unusual accessories that came with the dolls? Who sewed the simple, handmade garments for the doll?  How did Harriet’s interest in fashion affect her life, and that of her doll?

This January, Harriet’s doll will come out of storage where she has been in safekeeping, and the beautiful doll and her accessories will be on display in The Doll Gallery for the first time.

It was a privilege for me to get to play detective and solve some of the riddles of Harriet’s doll and the family.  I hope you will come to T/M in the next few weeks to see Harriet’s amazing doll and learn her story.   On February 10, I will give a program on the process I went through to research Harriet and her doll.  Throughout the rest of the year, you may attend some of the hands-on programs related to the doll, read a booklet that tells more of the family stories, play with special paper dolls (yeah!!) and learn for yourself how owning such a fabulous doll enriched Harriet’s life.

Ann Vernon, Docent/Researcher

The Motor Car Man with a Big Heart

“If you want happiness, there is only one way in the world to get it. You’ve got to give it.” –Jerry Smith

T/m’s newest special exhibit, Going Places: The Toy Collection of Jerry Smith, features toys collected by Jerry Smith (1917-1984), a Kansas City automotive dealer and philanthropist whose generous heart and fabulous toy collection left a lasting impact on the community.

It was the Christmas of 1924 that would later inspire Smith to start collecting toys. The holiday was a big event for six-year-old Smith, who circled the toys he longed for in the Sears and Roebuck catalog. As the youngest of six, the Kansas farm boy was depending on Santa to fulfill his dreams. However, there was only one present waiting for him under the tree: a cast iron Arcade Fordson toy tractor.


An Arcade Fordson tractor similar to the one Smith received

Disappointed, Smith called Santa a “tightwad” and said it was “the skinniest Christmas I’d ever had.” He would never forget those feelings of longing, frustration, and dashed hope, and that memory compelled him to help others in need. Smith grew up and moved to Kansas City, where he opened a Buick dealership at 5835 Troost in 1952. Smith ran his dealership with the philosophy, “You don’t get ahead, you give ahead.” He became a supporter of many local charities, especially those that served children. He also founded Operation Friendship, an initiative dedicated to providing for the community. In 1965, the Kansas City Times referred to Smith as “…a motor car man with a ready smile and . . . a heart that figuratively is as big as all outdoors. This particular man never seeks praise for his work. If you meet him on the street, he will just say . . . ‘We’ve taken care of that last case you referred to us…tell us about some more folks who need a lift.’”

One Christmas, Smith’s sister-in-law gifted him an identical version of his now long-lost Arcade Fordson tractor. He was overjoyed and realized there were more toys in the Arcade series. He set out to collect the entire set, and soon moved on to other toys that reminded him of his childhood: planes, trains, automobiles, farm toys, mechanical banks, fire engines, and transportation toys of all kinds. Eventually, Smith collected over 11,000 toys.

A selection of Smith’s toys from a 1968 Hallmark calendar

Following his philosophy of helping others, Smith used his collection to benefit the community. Whenever his collection was put on display, he would request that a fee be donated to a Kansas City charitable organization, usually Children’s Mercy Hospital. During the holiday season in 1965, Smith’s collection was exhibited at the Hallmark Gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Over 130,000 visitors attended, and all the proceeds went to a youth organization. Smith even appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to promote the exhibit; the entire video is available to view in the exhibit.

Jerry Smith with a 1968 toy exhibit at the Hallmark Gallery. Image courtesy of the Hallmark Archives.

Back home in Kansas City, Smith’s collection was exhibited at the Wornall-Majors House and the Kansas City Museum. Smith also created the Christmas Village, which featured festive holiday dioramas in the Long-Bell Lumberyard at Gregory and Wornall. Smith requested that admission proceeds go to Children’s Mercy Hospital. By 1967, Children’s Mercy had received over $25,000 from displays of Smith’s toys.

Jerry Smith in one room of his Christmas Village

Smith’s philanthropy continues to influence the Kansas City community. His charitable contributions reached organizations including the Kansas City Museum, the Boy Scouts Area Council, Avila College, the Rehabilitation Institute, Children’s Therapeutic Learning Center, and more. In 1976, Smith donated his 360-acre farm to the Kansas City parks system, which is still used as a park today. Last but certainly not least, Smith helped T/m founders Mary Harris Francis and Barbara Marshall assemble some of their earliest exhibits. Many of the cast iron and transportation toys T/m has on display in the permanent exhibits today came from Jerry Smith’s collection.

Mary Harris Francis, Barbara Marshall, and Jerry Smith celebrating Christmas at T/m in 1982

For Jerry Smith, a disappointing Christmas turned into a lifetime of giving. As the Kansas City Star remarked in 1966, “Perhaps none of this would have happened if Santa Claus had come through with the entire list submitted by Jerry back in 1924. Maybe Santa knew what he was doing after all.” During your next visit to T/m, be sure to stop by Going Places to learn more about the incredible toy collection and lasting impact of Jerry Smith.

— Written by Katherine Mercier