Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Antiquing Trip to England: Day One, London

Our day in London was a mad rush; we had just a few hours to ourselves to see as much as we could, before the tour officially started with a group dinner that evening. Since the tour itself was devoted to antiquing, we decided to focus on sights in London instead of shopping.

We started out at the British Museum. Wow. We could have spent our entire vacation inside the Museum, I think, and still not have seen everything. As it was, I studied the floor plans and carefully plotted our visit on a guide map beforehand, and we limited ourselves to 2 hours here (not counting gift shop time. There was some shopping, of course!)

First we toured the Egyptian Statuary room.
I particularly liked this red granite sarcophagus lid.
The face was somehow different from most other ancient Egyptian sculpture I'd seen, sort of comical and friendly.
He had an amusingly big nose and sticky-outy ears:

Next were two of my favorite pieces in the Museum: giant winged lion statues from ancient Assyria. These guarded the doorways of a royal palace built in 710 BC, and were believed to be imbued with magical powers. They were gigantic: you can get an idea of the scale from the protective lucite screen that surrounds them to a height where hands can't reach. (These were so cool, I bought a miniature version in the gift shop.)

Next to the lion statues was a very interesting photograph taken during their excavation in the 1850s, showing them in situ:

Another interesting piece related to the lions (and one related to toys as well) was this rough gameboard, scratched into the surrounding stone gateway by bored sentries. It was incredible to look at this game and imagine people playing it almost 3,000 years ago.

This placard described how the game was played,
and how similar versions have been found on other
ancient structures:

My very favorite pieces in the Museum, though, were the famed Lewis Chessmen. These iconic toys were discovered under  mysterious circumstances in a sandbank on the Isle of Lewis, just off the Scottish coast, in 1831. Carved from walrus ivory in the 12th century, probably in Norway, the pieces depict kings, queens, bishops, knights, and rooks with intriguing expressions.  The little characters are very captivating figures.

The queens are some of the most intriguing pieces. Holding hands to their faces, they appear anxious, fretful, perhaps worried about the outcome of the game:

Our visit to the British Museum ended with a tea break in the cafe, complete with our first scones, along with cream and jam. (I became addicted to these by the end of the tour.)

After the Museum, our next destination was Hamley's Toy Store, a 5 story wonderland founded way back in 1760, making it 250 years old!!! On the way, though, we were distracted by this lovely old umbrella shop, established, as the sign says, in 1830. We were told people come from all over the world to purchase umbrellas there. It was an appropriate detour, as it was raining at this point...

A major delay was caused by this kitschy souvenir shop, where I had to load up on snowglobes:

All along our walk through London, we spotted fascinating architecture and amazing old buildings. My favorites were those I have now christened "Squished Houses," impossibly narrow structures that seem to fill in every available space. For a sense of proportion, the lady on the sidewalk gives an idea of just how tiny this particular Squished House is:

Finally we made it to Hamley's:

The teddy bear shop sign hanging from the ceiling sent me nearly into hysterics. I had to be reminded that our tour had actually not started yet, and cautioned to not spend all my money here.

And so my purchases were pretty modest, considering I was in "the finest toystore in the world!" I chose a little Paddington complete with his suitcase and wellington boots. I also got a little wooden London playset: it has a tiny Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, No. 10 Downing Street, London Eye, and Big Ben inside, plus some double decker buses, phone booths, and post boxes. As the package says, it's "London in a your very own London!" Cool.

If money (and luggage space) had been no concern, I would have gotten this: a jaw-droppingly beautiful handmade rocking horse, from an old and esteemed line of British toymakers. Price? $3,000. Not counting shipping.

Coming up next: Day 2, the beautiful riverside town of Henley-on-Thames, featuring my first British antique store (in a building dating from the 1500s!), a specialist teddy bear boutique, and an old dollhouse found in a charity shop...

Monday, June 27, 2011

Antiquing Trip to England: Introduction

Ever since I was old enough to know what antiques were, I longed to go on an antiquing trip to England. Here at home in the United States, we just don't have anything to compare age-wise with England's 500 year old pubs, medieval cathedrals, or ancient castles, and our antique stores are filled with Beanie Babies, not Georgian tea caddies.

As a teddy bear lover, the pickings are similarly slim in the States. Great Britain seems to have as many teddy bear shops per square mile as we have McDonald's. (Well, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but only a small one.) The UK is also home to several teddy bear museums and manufacturers, although their numbers have recently begun to decline.

About 28 years ago, a couple from Chesaning, Michigan began leading collectors' tours of Great Britian. Terry and Doris Michaud were antique toy dealers, who actually started out selling and restoring dolls. They became two of the earliest teddy bear specialists, wrote several books, lectured all over the world, and eventually founded a museum and shop housed in a beautiful Victorian mansion in their historic small town. As antique bear prices soared in the 1980s and '90s, Terry and Doris began making more affordable replicas of their bears to sell, and the Dean's Company in England, an historic soft toy manufacturer, also helped with production and distribution for a period. When Walt Disney World decided to host its first teddy bear conventions, the Michauds were two of the experts it consulted, and a unique partnership ensued. 

An anniversary trip to England inspired the Michauds to begin taking groups of teddy bear collectors there, where they used their expertise and connections to provide access to factories, museums, and artisans. Each tour also included a sampling of Great Britain's historic sights, like castles, cathedrals, gardens, and picture-postcard villages.

This year I was fortunate to finally get to go on one of the Michaud's tours, rumored to be their last.  Our ten day itinerary included London; Henley-on-Thames; Dover with its white cliffs and famed castle; the antiquing paradise of Lewes; Tenterden; Canterbury, with its legendary cathedral; the Victorian seaside resort of Eastbourne; Rochester, birthplace of Charles Dickens; and the medieval market town of Faversham.

It was really the trip of a lifetime for me. I climbed to the top of a castle; wandered through an English manor house garden; had several cream teas; visited a teddy bear maker's workshop; had lunch in a centuries-old pub; saw ancient treasures at the British Museum; browsed in a toy shop founded in 1760 (!); and found lots and lots of fabulous old things, which I'll show and tell in upcoming posts. In the meantime, check out these links to magazine articles about past tours to get a glimpse.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Antiquing in England

Hi everyone: sorry for my slowness in responding to all your comments...been on my first antiquing abroad trip, in England!!! Almost done.... had to get an extra suitcase to fit all the finds. Lots of teddy bears, some dolls, a dollhouse (hence the extra suitcase)...and assorted other bits. Posts coming in a few days!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Fisher Price Fire Trucks: Looky, Winky Blinky, and Snorky

Fisher Price made a wide range of paper lithographed wooden fire trucks over its long history, and they were some of the most popular toys in its line. Today, they are highly sought by both Fisher Price and firefighting collectors.

The earliest is the Looky Fire Truck from 1950-1954, so named because of its anthropomorphic face made from the bumper and headlights. Measuring 12 inches long, it came with 3 permanently attached round headed firemen, precursors of the famous Fisher Price Little People.

All the fire trucks had lots of action features. As this one is pulled, the bell clangs; Looky's eyes move as if he's searching for the fire, or perhaps watching for pedestrians; and the two firemen holding on in the back spin around and bob up and down. This early in the Little People evolution, they are only heads, as can be seen below:

The truck is beautifully lithographed in rich colors with lots of details, including ladders, axes, oxygen tanks, hose connections, and gauges.

Looky was followed by the Winky Blinky Fire Truck, made from 1954-1960.  The two toys were very similar, but Winky had all new graphics with a cutesier truck face. The firemen and action features were the same, but included the addition of a (non-working) wooden siren.

A radical redesign arrived in 1960 with the introduction of the Snorky Fire Truck. Made for only 1 year, the 15 inch long truck is much sought for its firemen, now full bodied. They, along with their dog, represent some of the earliest iterations of what would become the Fisher Price Little People.

Snorky is a no nonsense fire truck: gone are the goofy headlight-and-bumper face and the merrily bouncing firemen in the back. Instead, it features a real hook and ladder which can be raised, and the firemen can hold the hose in their attached plastic arms.

The Snorky dog is one of the very rarest of Fisher Price figures. He may look odd lacking ears, but that's how he was originally made.


This first version of the Snorky Fire Truck featured old fashioned illustrations in its design:

The next and final model of the Snorky was also made for only one year, in 1961. It featured updated lithography resembling more modern fire trucks,  but for some inexplicable reason, it didn't come with a dog.

The Snorky Fire Trucks, with their single-year production runs, crankable ladders, and fragile-armed firemen, are some of the rarest, priciest, and most sought after vintage Fisher Price playsets. If you ever spot one of the firemen (or, even more impossibly, the dog) while yard saling, snatch it up: it's a treasure!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Miniature Tin Toy & Candy Shop

I found this antique miniature tin shop on display with a whole town full of other buildings, including a movie theater (with a marquee that read "Moving Pictures"), a drug store, and a red schoolhouse. Sadly I could only afford one, and this was my favorite, of course. Dating from 1914 and measuring just under 3 inches tall, the lithographed tin shop was originally a candy container.

The detail is remarkable
for such a tiny piece.
In the toy window,
you can just make out
a teddy bear, doll,
and red wagon:

Friday, June 10, 2011

Fisher Price Pop-Up Kritter: Tailspin Tabby

Fisher Price Pop-Up Kritters were a line of inexpensive, novelty type toys introduced in the company's first year, 1931. They were constructed of a series of wooden beads, strung together with heavy line, and mounted on wooden paddles. Metal rings on the underside of the paddle gathered the strings together, and by pulling on the rings, the Kritter could be made to move, rather like a marionette, wiggling, flopping down, and springing up.

This cat Kritter was known as Tailspin Tabby, and was part of the first series. The earliest versions of the Kritters came with poems, and Tabby's read:

"Tailspin Tabby is my name --
Action is my claim to fame.
Who can resist my tail to twist?
To pass me up would be a shame."

The first version of Tabby dates from 1931-1939, and featured a yellow painted face with oilcloth ears (now often missing). It came on a round or long guitar shaped paddle, stamped with the Fisher Price logo. This Tabby stands just under 5 inches to the top of her head.

This later version of Tabby is from 1948-1950, and was much redesigned, with a cuter face, big feet, and more diminutive proportions. Instead of a stamped Fisher Price logo, it has a colorful label.

Their low price (.75-$1.00), pocket-sized portability, and comical movement made the Kritters a huge hit with both children and adults, and they were mainstays of the Fisher Price line for decades. The most popular Pop Up Kritter was Disney's Pluto Pup, but the range included giraffes, storks, donkeys, elephants, geese, a dinosaur, Donald Duck, and a mouse that looked suspiciously like Mickey.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Silly Billy: Vintage Mr. Potato Head Knock-Off

Vintage Mr. Potato Head toys are some of my favorite collectibles. Besides Mr. P-head himself, there are lots of related items to search for, including many knock-offs made during the early years of the craze. This set, Silly Billy, was particularly bold, even including the manufacturer's name and address on the box.

The contents appear to have been molded right from the originals, and the illustrations are virtually identical. Naughty, naughty. I can't imagine they got away with this for very long.

You can see lots more Mr. Potato Head knock-offs (and rare vintage Potato Head stuff) at

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Fisher Price Coaster Boy

The Coaster Boy, made for only one year, 1941, is one of Fisher Price's rarest and most sought-after lithographed wooden pull toys. 15 inches long, the coaster features an attached, jointed wooden boy. As the wagon is pulled, the boy pushes it along, then he hops up onto the wagon, and coasts! After a bit, he hops off and pushes it again. All the while, a bell rings, so you know he's coming. You can imagine the kind of hard play these would have gotten outside, which, combined with their brief production run, makes them so rare. Just an amazing and beautiful toy.



Friday, June 3, 2011

Fisher Price Donald Duck Toys

Fisher Price made an incredible variety of lithographed paper and wood pull toys in its first few decades, and Donald Duck was one of its most popular licensed characters.

My earliest such toy was made between 1936 and 1938: Dapper Donald Duck. Eight inches tall, it features "flapping" wings held in place by a piece of rubber. Dapper Donald was one of Fisher Price's earliest bestsellers, and it's easy to see why.

One in a series of character driven train engines, 1940-1942's Donald Choo Choo was a fun entry in the line, measuring 9 1/2 inches long.

Next, from 1946-1948 comes Donald Duck Drum Major, 10 inches tall. The baton spins as the toy is pulled.

The Donald Duck Xylophone from 1946-1953 is one of my favorites. At a whopping 13 inches tall, this was a big pull toy. As it is pulled, Donald actually plays the xylophone.

 Lastly, from 1949-1951, the 8 inch Donald Duck Drummer cheerfully pounds away on his tin drum as he's pulled along. What a difference in style between this and the 1936 Dapper Donald, with his long bill and manic expression!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

German Dollhouse Pastry Shop Revisited

A few months ago, I posted about an antique German dollhouse pastry shop we restored. I've been fiddling around with it since then, trying to get its accessories just right. One of the things I've added is a tiny table and chair, making a little dining corner. The shop is so big, there's plenty of room, and I think the addition has made it more interesting.

I also added a new shopkeeper, who seems to match the surroundings better than her predecessor:

"Hello dears! What can I get for you? 
The coffee cake is particularly lovely today."