Small Talk

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


Christmas Traditions at T/m

“Christmas was on its way. Lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, upon which the entire kid year revolved.” – Ralphie Parker, A Christmas Story, 1983

That lovely, glorious, beautiful time is upon us once again, and at T/m, our year definitely revolves around it. Our cases are full of memories from Christmases past, and our halls echo with the nostalgic exclamations of children and children-at-heart, both for the toys they had and the toys they longed for.

Our official holiday season begins just before Thanksgiving when we put up our big Christmas tree in the museum’s lobby. Over twelve feet tall, the tree is topped with a stovepipe hat, a nod to Frosty the Snowman. It is decorated with glass ornaments, including several Santas donated by long-time volunteer and miniaturist Bud Koupal. When the tree is ready, Bud hangs the finishing touch, a glass gingerbread house he and his late wife Jan purchased together at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art many years ago.

The Tureman Education Center is decorated with a tree, garlands, and twinkling lights in preparation for our holiday workshop the day after Thanksgiving. For those who are looking forward to some family time on Black Friday, we hope you will join us this year in making your own miniature Christmas tree complete with ornaments and a tree skirt.

Our Playing for Keeps exhibit will also have its own silver tinsel tree to complement the mid-century theme of the exhibit. Collections Manager Calleen Carver has already posed for her holiday photo next to our MAJOR AWARD (leg lamp).

Some of the halls we deck are very tiny. Twin Manors, the 1:12 scale Georgian mansion created by artist William R. Robertson, has its own set of miniature decorations. You won’t find a Christmas tree in this house because the custom was not popular in colonial America. Instead, it is adorned with petite boughs of evergreen and a holly ball that hangs in the center hall. The kitchen table is heavy with holiday treats that are waiting to be served in the dining room.

Coleman House, the museum’s largest dollhouse, also has its own Yuletide decorations. The nine-foot-tall dollhouse was built for the children of a Pennsylvania iron baron in the 1860s. A twenty-three-inch Christmas tree festooned with Victorian scrap paper ornaments stands in the dining room, and a delicate garland is laced through the balustrade of the center stair case. On December 1st, we will host the world’s smallest “open house”—the doors of the dollhouse will be unlocked and educator Katherine Mercier will give “tours” all day!

Just a few feet away from Coleman House, Miss Mary will make her annual appearance in The Doll Gallery. This rare and important doll was made by artist Izannah Walker as a gift for Mary Estelle Newell in 1861. Miss Mary presides over the season from Thanksgiving to Epiphany (January 6th), and then she settles in for a long winter’s rest (to preserve her for future generations).

Amy McKune, the curator of collections, has assembled some additional holiday-themed miniatures to delight our visitors. This includes a sterling silver menorah measuring just 2 5/8 inches high by William Meyers, needlepoint stockings in 1:12 scale by Martha Farnsworth, and a miniature of a miniature Christmas tree with trimmings by Nell Corkin. These will be on view until Epiphany as well.

Father Christmas will make his annual appearance at T/m on Sunday, December 16 from 1-2:30 pm. Jim “Two Crows” Wallen, story teller extraordinaire, will be telling folk tales from all over the world. We’ll be serving cookies and cocoa, and Father Christmas will be available for sweet photos.

The best thing about this time of year at T/m is, by far, the visitors who have made us part of their holiday tradition over the years. We treasure the stories you share, and we love that our programs and exhibits have been woven into the fabric of your family memories. We hope that over the next few weeks you will find time to join us once again!

Laura Taylor
Curator of Interpretation



Miniature Masterworks: Johannes Landman

Miniature Masterworks: Johannes Landman

Johannes Landman specializes in miniature paintings inspired by the Dutch Golden Age. His 1:12 oil paintings are created on wooden panels that are covered in gesso. When finished, his work is mounted in hand-carved frames.

Landman is one of more than 60 artists participating in Miniature Masterworks, September 15-17, 2017. He will be giving a gallery talk about his work in the T/m collection and the inspiration behind it on September 17 at 1:30pm.

Miniature Masterworks: Miyuki Kobayashi

Miniature Masterworks: Miyuki Kobayashi

Miyuki Kobayashi began making miniature food and flowers 25 years ago. Now, she creates miniature aquariums complete with tropical and seawater fish, plants, and coral. Kobayashi pays special attention to expressing the vivid movement of her subjects, portraying them as naturally as possible.

Kobayashi is one of more than sixty artists participating in Miniature Masterworks, September 15-17, 2017.