We have a number of 19th and 20th century dolls in the collections; a few, including Kathryn Brown’s bisque and composition baby doll and Billy Hazard’s much-loved composition and fabric “Earl,” have been featured here before.  Today we have a doll of similar vintage to those two, but of different construction: a wood-bodied, metal-jointed Schoenhut doll from the 1920s. R2001.20.09 waving hello

Albert Schoenhut of Pennsylvania patented his “All-Wood Doll” in 1911. The metal joints allowed these dolls to be easily posed in relatively realistic ways. As his patent description explains,

My invention relates to toy figures, manikins, jointed dolls, and the like, and the object of my invention is to provide a structure of this character with means serving to articulate the several members, such means being of a character as to insure the maximum degree of friction whereby the several limbs and portions of the same may be turned and held in various positions assumed by such turning operations without danger of disarrangement except at the desire of the person using the toy, doll, or jointed figure.  In addition, the means which I have provided for articulating the structure are so arranged as to insure movement of the several limbs substantially in accord with the movement of the several limbs of the human body.

In simpler terms, a child could have Dollie stand on one leg and she’d stay that way until it was time for a new pose. A 1921 advertisement in Scribner’s Magazine shows several energetically posed dolls, and touts these features of “the world’s only educational doll”:

Made entirely from wood.  Painted in enamel oil colors which can be cleaned with a damp rag. Fully jointed with the new patented steel spring hinge, with double spring tension and swivel connections. No rubber cord whatever. Full joints at wrists and ankles. A unique foot pedestal by means of which the doll stands by itself. Real mohair wigs – blonde or Tosca or carved hair handpainted. Eyes either fixed or movable. Either conventional or natural child faces.

Our particular doll is a 15” model, with a “natural child face” (also known as a “character” face) and a Tosca (reddish-colored) mohair wig. The maker’s mark is inscribed on her shoulder blades: “Schoenhut & Co., Pat Jan 17 ’11 USA and Foreign Countries.”  Like most survivors of childhood play she’s missing some original features, including her union suit and foot pedestal, but she’s otherwise in pretty good shape.  She’s dressed in a cute purple floral swatch (the fabric is not actually sewn into a dress), topped with a cape and bonnet crocheted from white wool, and has some gold-colored bobby pins in her hair.

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The doll – unfortunately, we did not get its name – belonged to Frances Brown Brosius, born in 1919 to Carroll and Isabelle Brown of Forest Glen.  In the early 1920s, the Browns moved to the Neelsville area (between Clarksburg and Germantown), where Mr. Brown managed several local farms. Frances attended Cedar Grove Elementary School through seventh grade, then went to Gaithersburg High School.  (She may be one of the students in the photo below, showing Cedar Grove students in 1927; anyone recognize her?)

MCHS Library collections, from Denise Wilson

Cedar Grove School, 1927. MCHS Library collections, from Denise Wilson

Mrs. Brosius lived in Silver Spring after her marriage, and in 2001 she donated a large collection of her family’s farm tools, household goods, toys, and other pieces (here’s her father’s fish) to the Historical Society.  This doll came with a trunk, some doll-sized furniture and accessories, and a few other pieces of clothing, saved from Mrs. Brosius’s childhood – and perhaps played with by her own children. The 1921 Schoenhut ad begins, “The child’s greatest tragedy is the breaking of the new doll or of the old favorite. . . . A Schoenhut doll will outlast [cheaper dolls] many times over.” Unlike many of the dolls in our collections, this young lady is still sturdy and unbroken – Mr. Schoenhut’s promise would seem to have held true.

To see a few other examples of Schoenhut dolls, here’s a bit from everyone’s favorite antiques show featuring four dolls from the 1910s. Right now you can also see our unnamed young lady in person, on display in the Beall-Dawson House children’s bedroom.

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Today we have a rather unusual pair of three-wheeled roller skates from the early 20th century.  They are made of metal, with hard-rubber treads on the wheels; each skate is 16 inches long, and weighs three pounds.

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These babies were donated to us in rough shape; they were found in a Rockville basement during a building demolition (more on that in a bit).  The metal is rusted; the orange and black paint, what’s left, is flaking off; the rubber treads are deteriorated, dented and flattened.  Any original marks or labels are long gone.  One skate is missing its adjustable toe-cap, and the cap that remains is bent out of shape and useless.  Presumably there was some kind of strap at the rear, now gone, for the wearer’s ankles.
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Without a maker’s mark, their general history is proving elusive.  The only other example I’ve found is this skate, in rather better condition – contrast the curled-down toe-cap, and the shinier paint job, with our pair – but still without a name.  My 1902, 1908 and 1927 Sears catalog reprints only advertise ‘regular’ strap-on quad skates (invented in 1863; earlier skates were in-line); no three-wheeled jobs to be had.  However, a patent search revealed a number of three-wheeled skate designs – similar to ours with one in front, two in back – all from the 1910s.  None are an exact match to our pair, but the concept (which never took off, I guess; this style, at least, appears rather cumbersome) seems to date to that decade.

A flat tire

The specific history of the skates is a little easier to trace.  Our catalog records indicate that they were donated by the Rockville Urban Renewal Project in the early 1970s, after being found in the basement of “Stein’s Store” during demolition.  The problem is that there wasn’t a “Stein’s Store.”  Presumably our cataloger meant either Stern’s Modern Furniture or Steinberg’s Department Store.  I’m inclined toward the latter, because Morris Stern opened his first store in 1926, perhaps a little late for our skates, whereas Steinberg’s opened in 1908.

Let’s say Steinberg’s, then, for now.  Lithuanian immigrant David Steinberg opened his grocery store in 1908, quickly adding clothing and accessories to his stock; the name was changed to Steinberg’s Department Store around 1930.  The building, which included the store on the ground floor and the family’s apartment above, was on East Montgomery Avenue in downtown Rockville. David and Bertha Steinberg raised three sons in their home over the shop: William, born 1910; Isadore, born 1913; and Joseph, born 1916.  The family (including son Joseph) ran the Department Store and several other shops until the 1960s, when Urban Renewal came and the old downtown shopping district was torn down to make way for a mall (now demolished in its turn). Steinberg’s was one of the last old buildings to go; it was razed in 1972.

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Steinberg’s Department Store, the three-story brick building in the foreground, shortly before it was demolished in 1972. The building under construction is the Americana Centre. MCHS Library collections.

Though a lot of the skates’ poor condition can be attributed to basement-living for 50-odd years, the fact that there are pieces missing leads me to believe that they weren’t just forgotten store merchandise – these were used.  The proposed date of the skates, and the ages of the Steinberg sons, are a nice match; I think these were enjoyed by one or more boys, tooling around the sidewalks of Rockville.

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These simple, if slightly mysterious, roller skates could serve as the jumping-off point to a wide variety of stories:  The history of roller skating.  Patents and inventions. The effects of time on metal and rubber.  Urban Renewal’s impact on the City of Rockville.  The life of the Steinberg family, the first Jewish family in Rockville.  The problems caused by a simple typo or mis-transcription (“Stein’s Store”) when researching the past.  So many directions to go in!  I charge you, blog readers, to look at objects both familiar and unfamiliar and think about the many stories, big or small, they can tell.

March is, among other things, National Craft Month.  We’ve featured some high-end crafting on the blog, like the hair wreath, the fretwork Lord’s Prayer, and the engineer-built cardboard house model . . . but today, let’s look at something a little simpler: a train caboose made of wood, wire, spools, paint, and a milk carton.

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Our little caboose was donated in 1998 by Eugenie Riggs, who told us it was made by one of her sons as a Boy Scout project.  George and Eugenie Riggs had four sons, born between 1934 and 1946; the family moved from D.C. to Chevy Chase in 1936, and then to Ashton’s historic “Cherry Grove” in 1945.  Waxed cardboard milk cartons were invented in the early 20th century, but didn’t become popular until the 1950s or so; thus I think the caboose was probably made in Ashton.  (Any Ashton-area Scouts from the 1950s out there want to chime in?)

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The underlying structure here is a Lucerne Vitamin D Milk carton.  The wheels are made of wooden spools, cut in two and connected with dowels, then attached to the carton with heavy wire.  Extraneous bits, like the top of the compartment and the little ladders on the ends, are made of cardboard, including some decorative corrugation on the roof.  The whole thing is painted red and black, and marked “B-O” for the B&O Railroad, one of the oldest railroads in the country (and a presence in Montgomery County since 1873).

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Pretty cute, right?  Unfortunately, we did not get any other information from Mrs. Riggs about this piece; while she was definitely a ‘saver,’ and gave us a very large donation of toys and playthings, this is the only craft-type artifact that was included.  It seems likely that it meant something special, to her and/or to its maker.  I’ve always liked this little caboose because it shows that milk-carton kids crafts – which abound on the internet (there are entire websites devoted to what you can make from a milk carton!) – have been around as long as the cartons themselves.

In honor of Boxing Day (which isn’t really about packaging, but that’s okay) here is a tiny box! . . . and its contents.

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In 1953 the Lesney Products toy company of England introduced a collection of vehicles designed to fit into replica matchboxes. They called them, honestly enough, the Matchbox series.  Our excavator here is a model 24B, first sold in 1959.  Indeed, the box is only three inches long – nice and tidy.  (The pencil marks are our numbers, FYI.) The diecast metal toy inside has a hinged excavator and rolling wheels, and is marked “Weatherill Hydraulic” – Weatherill was a British manufacturer of life-size hydraulic equipment.

Our little excavator is part of a large donation of toy vehicles (of various sizes, not just Matchboxes) donated to MCHS by Eugenie Riggs of Ashton; they belonged to her youngest son, born in 1946.

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Today’s artifact was a special request* from a volunteer, who wanted to learn more about the toy fire engine on display in the “kids’ bedroom” in the Beall-Dawson House. If you spot something in the museum and want to know more, you can ask the docent or – if you’re on a self-guided tour – check out the listing in the room guidebook; but if you need to delve deeper, please let me know! There’s always more to say about an artifact than will fit in our little guidebooks.

This horse-drawn fire pumper wagon is made of cast iron, measures 12 inches from horse nose to back wheel, and was originally painted in bright yellow, red, blue, black and gold. Much of the paint has worn off, and in fact this photo shows it looking a little spiffier than usual thanks to the camera flash; in normal light, and from behind the room barrier, it looks rather dull.  Let’s give it a chance to look colorful once more.

Cast iron toys were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They often involved moving parts: mechanical banks, clockwork trains, pull-toys with clanging bells, cap pistols, even working steam engines. According to Richard O’Brien, author of The Story of American Toys (1990), cast-iron was “a peculiarly American material . . . rarely used elsewhere for toys.” In the days before plastics, though, cast iron was sturdy, moldable, and relatively inexpensive – perfect for the toy industry. A large number of companies produced mechanical toys in cast iron, often along very similar lines; variations on the horse-drawn fire pumper were produced by Hubley, Kenton, and Ives, among others. Our particular example is unmarked (other than the number “870” impressed on the underside), and while there are many similar examples in books and online – most dated to the very early 20th century – I haven’t found a specific match with an identified maker.

Above: cast iron fire engine toys in the 1900 Sears catalog, “handsomely painted in bright colors . . . strong, interesting and durable.”

Toy fire engines have had a long-lasting, and obvious, appeal. Real fire engines are fast and highly noticeable, and fire fighting is an important and exciting job. Remember this post, where Mr. Prout (1840) cautioned his children against messing around with the equipment at the nearby firehouse? I bet the young Prouts had some kind of fire engine toy or make-believe fire-fighting game. Toys like this one help us make connections between our own childhood and that of our ancestors. Relatively faithful toy versions of the ‘real thing,’ in this case a steam-boiler pumper, can also tell us about old technologies; though they might seem primitive to us today, steam-powered hose pumpers were a big improvement over hand-pumped water. Here’s a restored steam fire engine, if you want to compare it to our little one (and learn more about how they work).

As for this particular toy itself, it was donated by Eugenie LeMerle Riggs (1904-2003) in the 1990s. From conversations with the donor it appears that she collected antique toys as an adult, but this piece may have belonged to her as a child in Washington DC – or perhaps she purchased the antique toy for her own sons to play with, when they were growing up in Ashton. Eagle-eyed toy collectors may notice that our toy has acquired some extra bits, including a back-up driver who can be seen chillin’ on the side in some of the pictures, and a spare crank or wheel which I keep sticking on top of the boiler (where it does not belong) to keep it from getting lost.

So when you visit us, keep an eye out for our little fire engine, and let me know what else you’ve noticed in the museum that deserves some extra attention!

*Yes, if you make a request, it will make it onto the blog eventually! It’s not just because – in this case – the inquirer was my father. (Hi, Dad!)

Images of natural disasters prompt different reactions in different people; some are moved by aerial views of the big picture, while others respond more to the ground-level stories. To me, some of the saddest pictures are the ones showing people poking through the debris that used to be their home, looking for any belongings they can salvage. Sometimes you hear about major finds among the wreckage: a wedding dress, a photo album, a flag. Yet with devastation that total, even the recovery of a single report card, toy soldier or coffee mug can be a triumph; just something that proves you had a life, an existence, before the disaster. Things that may have had little value beforehand become all the more important when they are the only things left.  The toys on today’s post do not have quite that dire a history, and may not have stirred up that level of intense feeling, but let’s give them them a look and then a ponder, shall we?

Mrs. Eugenie Riggs donated a collection of toy cars and trucks, played with by her youngest son Barrymore at their home in Ashton. Shown here are two Dinky Toys: a gray Armstrong-Siddeley coupe, model 38e (probably) from the early 1950s and a black Simca 8 Sport, model 534-F, from 1959. We also have lots of farm toys, construction toys, animals, soldiers, even a plastic “space alien,” all owned by her four boys.  Many years later, Mrs. Riggs remembered which toys were the favorites of which sons; the cars belonged to the youngest (born in 1946), who “always liked these little things.”

These 1930s toy soldiers – 97 in all, representing a mix of manufacturers (and wars; there’s at least one knight) – came from three generations of the Jacobs family of Gaithersburg and Washington Grove. The donor, Charles Jacobs, said of them, “they were played with (and battered by) me, a young nephew, two daughters and three grandsons.”

“Earl,” donated by the Barth family, belonged to a young boy in Garrett Park. Judging by Earl’s condition, he was much loved – and probably toted around by his particularly battered left arm. His owner, Billy Hazard, died in 1918, only five years old. Mrs. Hazard wrapped the doll up and tucked him away, along with a brief but poignant note reading “Earl, the doll Billy had when he died.”

Toys like these – battered, beat-up, broken – might seem to be of little value, but it’s a matter of connection. Think about how your feelings would differ if you found a doll like Earl on the street; if you came across him in an antique shop, and he reminded you of a toy you once owned; if he was your own doll, discovered in a parent’s attic; or if he was one of the few remnants of your life that survived a cataclysmic disaster. I’m not saying we should cling to every piece of ephemera that crosses our path (well, I’m not really saying that) – but things are important to us, more so than we sometimes remember, and I hope you spare a thought for the potential meanings of the various objects you use, keep or discard today.

The idea for today’s blog came from this story about a woman who started a Facebook page for “pictures and documents found after the April 27, 2011 tornadoes.” (There is also a similar page for animals and pets.) This is such a lovely idea. I can only imagine – and not very well at that – what it must be like to lose your home and all your belongings. I’m glad to know that there have been some success stories, as people are reunited with heirlooms and mementos large and small.

One of the Jacobs family's soldiers, made by Manoil.

This cabin looks like a set of Lincoln Logs, but it actually predates that toy by several decades. Although we’re missing the original box so we can’t be sure, this is almost certainly a Log Cabin Playhouse invented by Joel Ellis in the 1860s. (Lincoln Logs were introduced by John Lloyd Wright in 1916.) The principle is the same: interlocking sticks. The end product is a nice big play house (each side is 17 3/4″ long) with metal doors and a removable roof. Ours is missing one shutter/door and one roof panel (and when the house is finished, we have 18 logs left over . . . ?), the logs appear to have been repainted at least once, a few notched ends are broken, the metal prongs that support the door openings are bent, and there are pencil marks, sticker remnants and evidence of repair on the roof – in other words, this toy saw a lot of hard use over the years.

The log cabin came from the Smith home, in Rockville. Edwin Smith, an astronomer, and his wife Lucy built a summer home in Rockville in 1890 (well, Rockville builder Edwin West built it, but you see what I mean) and soon moved their family there full-time. The 16 room house at 108 Forest Avenue was home to Edwin and Lucy, Lucy’s mother Cornelia Black, the six Smith children, and a few servants. Mr. Smith built an observatory in the backyard (in addition to his more famous building, the Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory). The house is still standing, and still owned by the family.

The Smith home, circa 1900 (with two likely log cabin builders standing in the gate). Donated by Miss Lucy Smith.

When the toy was donated to us (by a neighbor), it was associated with Miss Lucy Neville Smith, daughter of Edwin and Lucy, who lived in the family home (along with various nieces/nephews and great-nieces/nephews) until her death in 1980 at the age 91. Miss Smith was well-known in Rockville, so it’s natural that the donor should describe the artifact as coming from “Lucy Smith’s home,” believing it to be from Lucy’s generation. However I suspect this toy, made in the 1860s or 1870s, originally belonged to one of her parents (Edwin was born in 1850, Lucy Senior in 1862) before being played with by their six kids (and those kids’ friends), and then grandkids and great-grandkids in their turn. It’s easy (for me) to imagine a young future-astronomer enjoying a construction toy like this, but it could just as easily have belonged to Lucy Senior; after all, the original packaging shows a little girl playing with her log house. At any rate, the wear and tear on the toy would seem to indicate that this was a stand-by toy, kept at the ready for any kids on hand, in the house for many years.

Usually, I can either use an existing photo of the weekly artifact or just take a new photo with relative speed. (Maybe that’s why my photos are usually terrible.) This week’s photo shoot required a little more effort! Thankfully I was able to call on our high school intern, Maria, for assistance in putting the Log Cabin Playhouse together. We’ve had enthusiastic interns before, but Maria might win the prize for Most Excited About Getting to See and Handle Historic Artifacts and Documents (didn’t know there was a prize for that, did you?). This is totally fabulous for us because not only do we have a willing helper, we (or at least I) have a reminder that it IS really exciting to get to see and handle historic artifacts. I wouldn’t describe myself as jaded, but I have been doing this for 11 years, and some of the awe has worn off. It’s fun to bring the awe back by introducing someone new to the joys of opening up a box and finding a 150 year old toy inside.

Come on in!

P.S. An interesting article on the development of construction toys (and the first clue I had in finding out the origins of our log cabin) can be found here.