Vintage Toys
By Karen Parr-Moody

Vintage toys revive wonderful holiday memories. As I mention in my "Stocking Stuffers" article, I recently met with some older folks for a newspaper article I wrote on Christmas memories. These six men and women ranged in age up to 92. And what did the women vividly recall? Receiving dolls for Christmas, including the cloth doll with a tin head that one woman loved and another doll with a "pretty dress and cap" that one woman remembered.


The nostalgia surrounding toys is irreplaceable, and such gifts are a wonderful choice for reviving such nostalgia. In the booths at GasLamp, many treasured toys can be found, whether in the form of mohair stuffed animals from Steiff or the unusual John Deere model tractor that some child of the 1950s must have loved receiving.


Many toy lovers collect Steiff mohair animals from Germany, such as these from Janet Weinstein's booth in the photo, above right. This fabled company was born of an unlikely source: Appolonia Margarete Steiff, a German seamstress wheelchair bound by polio. Innocently enough, Steiff whipped up some elephant-shaped pincushions as gifts for friends way back in 1879. These stuffed elephants were eventually snatched up by the friends' children, who, rightfully so, thought they made great toys. With that, Steiff went on to become the largest manufacturer of stuffed toys in Germany.


Steiff's trademark is an embossed button put in the left ear of every animal since 1904. Patented as the "Knopf-im-Ohr" or "Button-in-Ear" trademark, if the animal still retains this, its value shoots up. Each Steiff animal is handmade, some with dozens of sections of fabric sewn together. The older Steiff animals -- and some of the newer ones -- have airbrushed detailing on their bodies.

Currently, Weinstein has a menagerie of Steiff animals in her showcase S-601, ranging from "Lora" the parrot ($44) to "Diggy" the badger ($68). She is currently running a sale of 30% off on all of the animals, so now is a great time to stock up on some mohair cuteness.


The antique child's rocking horse from India in the photo, above left, is an example of a craft by which seamstresses pieced together "shisha" mirror embroidered panels and sewed them onto stuffed animals ($185; S-115). Shisha (the Hindi word for “little glass”) embroidered cloth is a hallmark of India. It originated in 13th century Persia, and today is widely practiced by people in the state of Gujarat, India. At an early age, Indian girls learn this form of embroidery, which is ultimately included in their dowry and used for festival blouses, skirts and veils. In the Indian tradition, this rocking horse also has beads and pom pom trim hanging from the reins and saddle. This would make for a fabulous decorative item in a child's nursery or room.

Cars, planes, boats, trucks and circus animals -- all of these and more have been created since the mid-1800s from tinplate (thin sheets of steel plated with tin). Prior to this time, most toys were made of wood. Once tinp toys hit the scene, they became objects of wonder for children in the Western world. Until World War I, they were painted by hand, but the application of chromolithography made it possible for intricate, multi-colored illustrations to be printed onto the toys. Germany was the leader in the production of tin toys up until World War II. After that time, Japan emerged as the new market leader during the '40s, '50s and '60s. Today, replicas -- such as the one in the photo, right -- are made in various countries, from Germany to China (motorcycle, $35; motorcycle with sidecar, $18; zeppelin, $18; all at S-545).

The plush elephant in the photo, left, is from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey "Farewell Tour" of celebrated animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams (1934-2001), which occurred from 1989 to 1990 ($15; Booth S-104). Gunther Gebel-Williams espoused a theatrical style while he was in the center ring of "The Greatest Show on Earth." The German-born trainer joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in 1968, by which time he was already a well-established international celebrity. He often strode into the ring atop an elephant, which is why this toy is so symbolic. It would make a wonderful addition to a child's nursery that is decorated in a vintage circus or carnival theme.

Model tractors went into production in the early 20th century and were made of cast iron. By 1970, collecting them became a serious hobby and they are highly sought after today. This pedal tractor in the photo, right, is a rideable, scaled-down toy replica of the John Deere 70 (marked down from $1,250 to $859). Nicknamed "Big Green," this model has always been a leader in farm tractor production. This particular tractor is from John Deere's "golden age" of the 1950s.

Antique toys are sure to be a welcome surprise this Christmas for collectors and non-collectors alike. Their romance endures beyond their original era and they are sure to bring joy to children of all ages.

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