Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Big-Eared Bear

My very favorite antique teddy bears tend to be not the high end models, like Steiff, or those in rare mint condition. Although of course I enjoy finding such fine examples, I actually prefer bears from unknown makers who had, shall we say, less than a firm grasp of stuffed toy design.
I also adore bruins who have been heavily loved, and experienced a lot of life. These two factors combine to create bears who are full of character, like "Rupert" here, a c.1915 American teddy with the hugest ears I've ever seen.

Rupert was lovingly dressed long ago by a previous owner. I'm leaving him as found, especially as his clothes are helping to hold him together!

Is this the cutest face ever seen on a teddy bear?
I think, quite possibly, yes.

Somewhere during his long lifetime, Rupert had an owner who thought he was the perfect model for a portrait, which has fortunately remained with him:

I'm not sure what the beer bottle signifies. I'm hoping Rupert doesn't turn out to have a "drinking problem..."

Here's Rupert with his new best friend, Nosey Parker, another character-filled bear:

Steiff Gnome

This month's gnome-a-thon wraps up with a character from Steiff: "Pucki," one of their small gnome figures, made in Germany in the late 1940s-early '50s.

Pucki is 5 inches tall to the top of his hat, and is made of a rubbery composition material over a wire frame, with felt clothing and a mohair beard. The rubber compo material tends to deteriorate over time, resulting in drying, stiffening, cracking, and breaking. Steiff made many similar gnomes around this time period, and even with their condition issues, they're still charming little guys.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Eugene Gnome Family

One of my favorite vintage gnome items is also the only one with links to my childhood. I can remember seeing this family of gnome dolls advertised in the big Sears Christmas Wish Book back in the 1970s. I believe I actually tore the page out, circled the gnomes in thick, red marker, and included it with my letter to Santa, just to be sure he knew exactly what I wanted.

I can still remember going to bed every night that December, anxiously worrying about the gnomes: did Santa get my letter? Would he have enough of the gnome dolls in stock for all the children who would undoubtedly be asking for them that year? Would I pass muster on Santa's list, and be deemed worthy of said gnomes? Well, I must have had a pretty good year, because Santa dutifully brought them, and I played with them incessantly. My childhood gnomes didn't survive, unfortunately, but thanks to eBay, I have them back today.

Designed by the Eugene Doll Company of Brookyln, New York in 1979 and manufactured in "The British Crown Colony of Hong Kong," the 5-7 inch tall jointed gnomes are made of plastic with clothes of rather cheap synthetic materials. The clothes were embellished with stickers (a mushroom on the mom, a strawberry on the girl) that quickly fell off and were invariably lost (one of my eBay sets miraculously retains them). The Eugene Gnome Family was definitely not a high-end toy, but there was, and remains, something very captivating about these dolls. As a little girl, I absolutely treasured them, and I still do today.

The Eugene Gnomes were packaged in two different ways, a fact I was unaware of until I began hunting for them as an adult. The first variation is this display box, which is how the gnomes were sold in stores. It has some gnome folklore on the back, and suggests: "Keep them with you to lend a hand, to talk to, to pretend with, to have as friends. Invite the whole Gnome family -- they'd love to come."

The second packaging variant is this much smaller mailing box, which is how I remember my gnomes coming on Christmas Day as a child. There was no display box inside: the dolls were simply packed, loose, into this carton. This is how the gnomes were packaged for catalog sales, which is how the bulk of midwestern American Christmas toy shopping was done back in the 1970s. This dual packaging, one for stores, one for catalogs, was typical of many toys back then, but it can be puzzling if you're not aware of it, as I wasn't when I began my gnome hunt.

 It was like Christmas 1979 all over again the day this came.
Thank you, eBay!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Heissner Gnome

Another vintage German gnome, this one is a bit later than those previously posted, made in West Germany in the 1950s or '60s. Manufactured in high quality vinyl by Heissner, one of the oldest German gnome makers, this reading gnome measures 13 inches tall to the tip of his hat.

This closeup shows the detail of his sculpted face:

He's very appropriately reading a gardening book.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Mushroom Dollhouse

The largest piece in my collection of mushroom homes is this, a wooden mushroom dollhouse. It stands about 14 inches tall and was probably made in Germany. I found it years ago on display in a dollhouse shop, and I've never seen another quite like it.

 The house has open sides and two floors, which I've loaded up with a tiny gnome family and their furniture.

Downstairs is the kitchen and dining area:

In the dining room, supper has been laid out on the mushroom table:

In the kitchen, mom gnome has just taken a cake out of the oven:

Upstairs, a brother and sister gnome hang out. They've got mushroom and leaf furniture, snacks, and a cozy fireplace:

My favorite part of the house is the fireplace corner, with its leaf sofa:

It's windy and cold here today; wish I could sit by this fire with the gnomies!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Green, Yellow, and Orange Smurfs? No, They're Empire Gnomes!

Smurf collectors, in their pursuit of rare variations of the little blue figurines, sometimes come across what appear to be anomalies: Smurf-like characters in odd shades of green, yellow, and orange.

For quite awhile, confusion reigned in toyland over these items: they were pretty clearly Smurf knock-offs, but what were they? I had no clue, but I knew I liked them. Finally, I somehow chanced across a vintage ad in an old monster movie magazine, and there they were, but with a name: The Gnome Family, made by an American company called Empire in the 1970s.

The ad, copyrighted 1978, reads: "Lovable, laughable GOOD LUCK little folks that get you where your heart is. Adorable as they frolic in their gnome-sized playworld. Collect them individually or in sets and take them gnhome. Sold wherever toys are sold."

"Take them gnhome"...hee hee...anyway, Empire Gnomes have lately become rather popular collectibles in their own right, and snippets of information about them have begun to appear online.

The vinyl figurines are the same size as vintage Smurfs, about 2 1/2 inches tall, but they lack the tiny little "button" tail. (Maybe Empire thought that would be enough to avoid a copyright lawsuit.) Their accessories are made from a rather cheap, brittle plastic, unlike the high quality European vinyl of the Smurf sets. While the gnomes turn up from time to time, the playset pieces are much more scarce, probably because of this fragility.

The playground set included a ferris wheel (9 inches tall), a merry go round, and a treehouse with a swing and a slide on the back.

The little guys with their hands over their mouths are meant to look like they're giggling (a clear infringement on Jokey Smurf), but placed in the whirling merry go round, it rather appears they're about to vomit instead, doesn't it?

Check out the guy on the top. Apparently, in Empire Gnome Land, you're allowed to take big frothy mugs of beer on the ferris wheel. (Also, toy standards were clearly different back in the '70s. Can you imagine the parental outrage over Beer Swilling Gnome if  he were released today?)

Crazy Eyes Gnome welcomes you to his treehouse. 

Vintage German Gnome Thingy

Another vintage German gnome from my collection is this ceramic piece, made in Germany circa the 1930s.

Measuring 5 inches long, the tiny, smoking gnome is flanked by two hollow "tree stumps." I'm not quite sure what purpose these served: perhaps they originally held salt and pepper shakers (I'm guessing mushroom shaped ones) or they're meant as planters for small flowers?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mushroom Village

I have a thing for mushroom houses. It kind of goes hand in hand with my thing for gnomes.

These three pieces were made in different countries at different times, but together, they make a perfectly lovely mushroom village.
The littlest house, on the left, is only 3 3/4 inches tall. Made in the German Democratic Republic in the 1950s, it's actually a traditional German wooden novelty known as a "smoker". The mushroom lifts off the base, upon which a small cone of incense is set. When lit, the mushroom house is replaced, and the smoke drifts out through the tiny black chimney on the roof. The effect is totally charming, and makes everyone who sees it wish they could hang out in the cozy little mushroom.

The windmill in the middle was made in Japan circa the 1960s, and is actually a bank. There's a slot on the top for coins, and a trap door on the bottom to get them out again.

The last house is from Poland, and dates to the 1980s. It's a nesting item: the top of the mushroom lifts off, and inside are a set of tiny gnome ninepins and a ball, all made from wood.

One unlucky little gnome has to be stored upside down, or they won't all fit.

The little gnome ninepins are so super-cute, I can't bear to roll the ball at them.

Antique German Garden Gnomes

I love gnomes, and they comprise a major category of the "other stuff" I collect. The oldest gnomes in my collection are these miniature terracotta versions, made in Germany in the 1920s-30s.

They're an expressive bunch of little guys, measuring 6 inches tall.

 One of my favorites in this set is the smoking gnome. He reminds me of that photo of J.R.R. Tolkien that's on most of his books. He's holding his pipe in just the same way, and looks like he's about to say something both jovial and profound.

And then there's this gnome, lying about in a leisurely fashion, with rather a "come-hither" look on his face. His friend in the background is even more obviously "on the make": check out the open shirt and wanton expression. (He's also the only gnome I've ever seen with muttonchop sideburns instead of the traditional long gnome beard.)


Hard-working garden gnomes, these are not.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Antique Photo of Child With Garden Gnome

I've been wanting to do a little theme on garden gnomes for awhile (I adore gnomes), and I thought I'd start with this: a 1920s German photograph of a little boy with his gnome.

Kind of a creepy-looking gnome, no?

Garden gnomes got their start way back in the mid-1800s in Germany. The earliest were made of terracotta and were finely sculpted. Travelers to Germany took the gnomes back to France and England, where they became very popular with hobby gardeners. In America, these ornamental figures are often referred to as lawn, not garden, gnomes, perhaps reflecting the suburbanite obsession with their little plots of grass.

To learn more about gnomes, check out Garden Gnomes: a History, by the oddly yet aptly named garden historian Twigs Way.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Antique Photo of Child with Stearns Automobile and Chauffeur

Over the summer, I found this antique photo of a child playing in a magnificent automobile while a tolerant chauffeur looks on. Usually I only collect old photos of children with toys, a natural extension of my antique toy collecting. But this picture was just too captivating to pass by. And after all, the child is playing in the car, so perhaps we can consider it a toy, albeit a very expensive one.

 It took me awhile to get the car identified, but I'm told by my local "car guy" that it's a Stearns, made by the luxury automobile manufacturer F.B. Stearns of Cleveland, Ohio. Stearns cars were originally in production from 1898-1925, when the company was sold to J.N. Willys of Willys Overland fame. Willys continued making Stearns models until 1929, when they liquidated the company. I'm not sure of this car's date: I've seen pictures online of similar Stearns ranging from 1908-1920s. (Any Stearns experts out there who can identify it, feel free to write me!) In 1906, a typical Stearns auto sold for an astronomical $5,200, which explains the presence of the chauffeur: if you could afford this car back then, you probably had an estate with a substantial domestic staff.

The picture has a label on the back saying it was framed at Crowley, Milner & Company, a Detroit department store that was founded in 1909, so it's a pretty safe bet that this photograph was taken in a posh area of Detroit like Indian Village or its luxurious neighbor, Grosse Pointe.

That's one happy, happy kid. I would be, too, if I had a chauffeur to drive me everywhere!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

1930s Mickey Mouse Tea Set

The yard sale and outdoor antique show season is almost over in my part of the world, where the temperatures are already dropping into the 40s (Farenheit) at night. But last weekend I gathered up my spare change, braved the weather, and saled away, finding great bargains like the mod Barbie clothes and Flagg dollhouse dolls mentioned in the previous two posts.

I had decided to pack it in and head home, as the weather was turning decidedly blustery, when I spotted a final sale. It didn't look like much, but I thought I spotted the gleam of vintage lustrewear. I decided to check, and good thing too, because tucked away in a corner of a table was part of a 1930s Mickey Mouse children's tea set, Made in Japan, in the rarer blue lustre variation (when found, these pieces are usually in gold lustre.) Even though it's just a partial set, it's a treasure: one of the earliest licensed Mickey Mouse items ever made!

The find included a little creamer, four saucers, and two plates. For a sense of scale, the largest plates measure about 3 1/4 inches in diameter.

Mickey and Minnie on a nautical outing decorate
a saucer and the creamer.

An artist Mickey features in the center of a plate.

Mickey presents Minnie with a white rabbit, presumably pulled
from a magic hat, on this tiny saucer.

Mickey waters some flowers. He's probably going to give them
to Minnie later.

My favorite piece of all was this one, a little plate with the image of Mickey standing in front of a fantastic vintage microphone. He looks so confident and self-assured, doesn't he? What a cute little guy.

Now I just need to find the matching cups, teapot, and sugar bowl...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Flagg Flexible Dollhouse Dolls

These homely little dolls may not look like much compared to the oh-so-chic mod Barbies of the previous post, but they have a charm all their own, as well as a wonderful history. (I learned most of this history from the fantastic book Dollhouse and Miniature Dolls, 1840-1990, by Marcie and Bob Tubbs.)

The little dollhouse family of four includes a mom and dad, just over 4 inches each, and a boy and girl, just under 3 inches. They're made of a solid, flexible vinyl over a wire armature, and feature naively handpainted features, hair, and shoes with felt and cotton clothing. The tiny dolls were made by the Flagg Doll Company in the 1950s.

The firm began in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, just after WWII. The founders, Sheila and Charles Flagg, met during the war while she worked in a factory and he served at the Navy ship yard. Sheila was the artistically creative side of the partnership, sculpting the dolls from soap, designing and sewing their clothes, and painting their hair and faces. Charles was the mechanically creative partner. He made the molds, created the special casting oven, designed a hydraulic press to cut out the clothing, and invented a stapler to affix the clothing to the dolls. He also handled the advertising and business end of things.

The family's children sometimes helped in the factory as well. The Tubbs report in their book that "daughters, Leslie and Penny, first painted toenails and fingernails on dolls before graduating to painting faces. Neither daughter was allowed to be a 'costumer' after Leslie stapled her finger on the foot powered machine. One person in the factory boxed dolls, a thankless and unpopular task, as it was difficult to place the feet in the pre-cut tab openings. The Flagg's youngest child, Charles III, was often the nominated 'boxer.'"

The Flagg's first dolls came out around 1947, and appealed not only to children but also to child psychologists, who used them in diagnostic play with their young patients. As dollhouse play declined in the 1970s and '80s, this clinical market became the Flagg's biggest customer.

Besides the standard dollhouse family, the Flagg Company offered a vast range of creatively themed dolls, such as storybook characters, professions (nurses, doctors, police officers, teachers), a wedding party, nuns, Pilgrims, household domestic staff, and countless more.

Profitability became an issue as cheap import toys began flooding the American market in the 1970s and '80s, and the company, after being sold following Charles' death, finally closed in 1985.

The charming little dolls, with their rich history as part of one of the last American family-owned and run toy companies, are a precious addition to any collection. I was thrilled to find my set in a box of bargain priced "junque" at a local sale. Even in their well loved and played with condition, they're still tiny treasures.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mod Barbie Fashion Find

Mod-era Barbie clothes are just fantastic things, reflecting the daring, day-glo designs of their time (1967-1972). The individual outfits were given creative names by their designers, like "Maxi 'n Mini," "Knit Hit," and "Velvet Venture." They are also fragile things, made of glittery metallic and foiled fabric, velveteen, vinyl, and synthetic fur. These two factors combine to make mod-era Barbie fashions desirable, scarce, and costly. I've not been willing to pay the extortion-level prices usually asked for such pieces, and so my mod Barbies have sadly remained naked. Until now.

 While browsing some sales late last week, I stumbled upon a "bargain box" full of modern (1990s-2000s) Barbies. I was going to pass over them, as modern Barbies don't interest me much...but then I thought I better take a closer look at the box "just in case."

Well, it's a good thing I did: the contemporary Barbies were all clothed in original 1960s mod-era fashions, including some of the most highly sought Barbie clothes out there. Each doll was priced at $2.00, and at the bottom of the box was a plastic baggie filled with more mod pieces, the whole bag labelled $3.00. The score was about $250.00 worth of vintage Barbie clothes for $9.00!

 In the bag were the sleeveless minidresses "Knit Hit" & "Togetherness" (upper right), Francie's far-out and furry turquoise corduroy poncho (center), and 2 pieces from Sears' exclusive "Glamour Group" (bottom right), as well as a cool bowling bag and some vintage shoes.

The bag also included a couple of "mommy-made" pieces (top, left and right: stripey dress and yellow sweater/floral skirt ensemble).

After I recovered from my swoon, I rushed the Barbies home, where they were stripped and given to a friend who likes the new dolls. The vintage clothes were gleefully adopted by my mod Barbies, who model them below.

My blond Hair Fair Barbie sports the fabulous, and rarely found, "Maxi 'n Mini," a turquoise foiled maxi coat with a metallic striped mini dress. This outfit originally came with matching thigh-high boots, which were incredibly fragile and seldom survived. 

Check out that fab faux fur collar!

My blond TNT (Twist 'n Turn) Barbie models the coat from "Velvet Venture," a cool pale green plush with gold braid trim.

My brunette Hair Fair Barbie showcases one of the mod-era's day-glo outfits, which was named "Hurray for Leather" by Mattel designers who were apparently unaware of the naughty allusions this title could stir up amongst a certain group of sex fetishists. Unfortunate naming aside, this is one of the coolest of the mod fashions, consisting of a leather-look yellow vinyl miniskirt with day-glo orange shag trim that matches the sweater, completed with yellow "pilgrim" shoes.

She's ready for a night of go-go dancing...

My mod Barbies are thrilled with their extensive new (and cheap!) wardrobe.

To see lots more mod Barbie fashions, check out Carnaby Street at