The Nostalgia of Antique Toys

By Karen Parr-Moody


With the holidays upon us, thoughts turn to childhood toys and the joy they brought. Such nostalgia is swiftly summoned by the showcases at GasLamp, where diminutive finds – from fuzzy stuffed animals to nattily attired dolls – enchant the shelves.


“Steiff animals bring people back to their childhood,” says dealer Janet Weinstein, whose Showcase S-601 is a menagerie of animals from the German toymaker Steiff. “When I was growing up, Steiff animals were considered very exclusive, and they were very expensive, and few people really had them. So they were sort of mysterious.”


Steiff sprung forth from Appolonia Margarete Steiff, a German seamstress wheelchair bound by polio, who was born in 1847. In 1879 she made a collection of elephant-shaped pincushions as gifts for friends, which found their way into the playful hands of children. From these humble origins an empire was born; today the Steiff company, officially registered as Margarete Steiff GmbH, is the largest manufacturer of stuffed toys in Germany.


Collectors of Steiff look for the embossed button that has been put in the left ear of every animal since 1904 (if it had an ear), patented as the "Knopf-im-Ohr" or "Button-in-Ear" trademark. Each Steiff animal is handmade, some with dozens of sections of fabric sewn together. The tiny owl, shown above right, is called a Wittie Owl. Produced from 1954 through 1977, the body and wings are mohair and the feathers are designed from felt. Like most Steiff animals, Wittie has airbrushed detailing on his body ($72; Showcase S601).


“Those owls crack me up, they are just too cute,” says Weinstein. “Some of those critters lasted for years, and would have variations, just like a car. But like a BMW doesn’t vary much at all over the years, whereas an American car totally changes, these owls would stay almost unchanged.”


Other Steiff animals in Weinstein’s booth include the darling duo at left, the 11-inch giraffe ($104) and the “Diggy” Badger ($68).


Another fuzzy friend in Weinstein’s booth, which has particular significance for Nashville, is the dapper fox, photo right. Dressed as the hunter, he is hoping to fool all of the hunters out there on their thoroughbreds (fox, from Hanford’s Inc., of Charlotte, North Carolina, $66). Weinstein says, “In a lot of these old Nashville homes, you would occasionally see this fox.”


What Christmas tree wouldn’t be made brighter by a growling Teddy bear placed under it? Certainly U.S. political cartoonist Clifford Berryman had no idea he would kick off this country’s craze for the animal in 1902. It was then that U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt went on bear hunt in Mississippi, where he set free a bear cub that had been tied to a tree to make sure he would get a “kill” on his outing. Afterward, Berryman’s "Teddy's Bear” cartoon illustrated the event hit the Washington Post, and the rest is history. 


Antique bears have only increased in value in recent years. In the photo at left, the two larger bears have jointed arms and legs, but are unmarked ($200 each; Showcase S-1007). The smaller bear ($60) was made by R. Dakin &Co., a San Francisco company founded in 1955.


GasLamp dealer Sharon Standifer was a doll collector from an early age; she grew up with her friend Susan, and their mothers sewed outfits for both of the girls’ dolls. “We played with these dolls constantly, and we made up stories for them,” she says. “They would be a school teachers. That’s how we got into collecting them.”


Standifer’s booth, Hermitage Court Antiques, B-231, is a doll lover’s dream world. It houses an array of lovelies, including fashion plates Jill and her little sister, Ginny; both created by The Vogue Doll Company.


Prior to Jill’s introduction in 1957, Ginny was Vogue’s main attraction, an 8-inch-tall “little girl” with an adorable wardrobe who arrived on the scene around 1951. The Ginny doll in this photo, right, is a new “vintage” Ginny from 2003; only 350 were made. She comes with the nurse uniform, cape, hat, water bottle, and other accoutrements, plus the trunk and an additional hall tree with a bathing suit and cape (not shown), and one more outfit ($180).


Barbie springs to mind when one thinks of the iconic 1950s celluloid teenager. But prior to Barbie’s 1959 debut, there was Jill, a popular, 10-inch doll produced by Vogue from 1957 to 1965. The vintage Jill in the photo, left, comes with her original box and wears a fetching black leotard with her chic poodle bag. She also has an evening dress and raincoat ($80). She’s perfect for a night out on the town …or under the Christmas tree!


When seeking fabulous gifts sure to surprise loved ones at Christmas, look for the quality, beauty, and romance of antique toys. As during their original era, they are sure to delight children of all ages.

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