Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 27
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: January 1989 Volume 27 Number 1, Pages 7–12
Club Members Remember: Toys from Christmases Past
This mechanized frog was given by my grandfather to his brother as a Christmas present back in 1893. Some years later, when I was a lad, the little frog would come out every Christmas, first of all to be shown, and then to be wound up to go across the room. And then he'd go back into his cardboard until another Christmas. He's still in the original box -- what's left of it -- and on the cover is written "From John [that's my grandfather] to Livingston". (Unfortunately, Livingston didn't live too much longer, but John, my grandfather, lived to be 90.)
But this little frog is something we always remember at Christmas time. Each year we'd dig it out and our kids -- the fourth generation -- would take a look at it, and then back in his box he'd go. He's getting close to 100 years old now!
I still have some lead soldiers that I got when I was a real young one, a good many years ago, Most of them are not painted, just plain lead.
I also have another thing that probably not many of you will know what it is. It's a cylinder, about three inches long, with a diameter of about a dime -- but it's not a bank. My grandfather gave it to me when I got my first bicycle: it was used to measure the air in the tires.
This old toy must be getting close to 80 years old. It was very handsome when it was new, and was given to my brother when he was about four. It was part of a set -- a poodle and a clown and a tent and I've forgotten what else; I think there was also a ball. But this elephant was his most beloved toy. The tusks are gone -- I think my mother took them out because they were sharp -- a part of his trunk is gone, and his tail is gone. (The elastic that holds him together is obviously very much gone too.)
His name is "The Elephanter", and he was always my brother's favorite toy. When he started school he wanted to take "Elephanter" along -- but my mother wouldn't let him because he might get lost or broken or something.
There's a whole book out about those old Schoenut circus toys. They were made in Philadelphia.
This old iron stage coach and horse belonged to my father when he was a boy, and is about 90 years old. It has been roughly used now by three generations of the family, before becoming a collectors' item on my bookshelf. I pulled it out of my daughter's old toy chest when cleaning out the attic about ten years ago.
It is a cast-iron wheel toy, and was pulled with a string. It was a real favorite with young boys at the turn of the century.
I have a little doll's dressing table and chest of drawers that was made for me by my father. It has to be close to 70 years old now. The mirror is gone.
It's really rather crudely made, which surprises me because my father was a cabinet maker! (You know what they say about the shoemaker's children's shoes!) It's all made from scrap lumber -- old packing boxes -- and the drawers are all just nailed together, not dove-tailed.
This is a scrapbook that dates back to 1886, and was made by my mother when she was a little girl, as a Christmas present for her parents. I suppose that the pictures were all cut from calendars, and perhaps out of magazines. (There might have been a few magazines in those days.)
By comparison, this is a relatively new item -- and it's proof that it is the thought that counts, not the gift. On Christmas day each year, in a beautifully wrapped package with a box from one of the better stores, we would find, on opening it -- a toy snake!
I don't remember when it started, but for many, many years each year my father would wrap and give it to either my brother or me for Christmas. Then it would disappear, and on the following Christmas there would be another package, beautifully wrapped, and when it was opened -- there was that same snake again!
After my father died my brother and I continued the tradition and sent it back and forth each year. I'd send it to my brother one year, and he'd send it back the next. We never simply put it in a narrow rectangular box; it was always disguised. Somtimes it would be in a round box, sometimes in a large package and perhaps labeled "Fragile". One year it was sent to me in the middle of a can of peanuts! We never knew in which package it would be -- and sometimes when we had opened most of the packages and it still hadn't shown up we'd think, "I wonder if we had that snake this year and were supposed to send it back to Georgia" --but sooner or later it would show up, to be put away and sent back the following Christmas, until my brother passed away a few years ago.
It became a real family Christmas tradition -- and a well-traveled snake!
This locomotive is from my first electric train. But it represents more than just a train set. When I was a young boy my father bought a railroad set for us, and made what we called a Christmas garden. He did it himself, before the days when they became popular. It was a logging camp. Everything was made by hand; he had cabins and bunks, and a mess hall, and he made a water tower out of an old Ovaltine can -- everything made to scale. And the train -- the first train I had -- ran around this garden. We added other trains later on, and he built a platform, which folded up and fitted into the cellar, to put it on.
He'd set this all up in one night, Christmas Eve. I used to worry that he'd still be up when Santa Claus came, and that Santa Claus would just go right on by us. I would always ask my mother please to get my dad to bed early. But it would take him all night to set it up; he'd finish it just about dawn.
I can remember that when I was a boy nobody had his Christmas tree up until Christmas Eve. I tried to carry on that tradition with our boys. But the trains just about licked us, because the switches or something never worked right, and it was a real job to get everything just right.
It was quite a few years before my brother and I realized that the stockings that were filled were not the ones we had "hung by the chimney with care". My parents would fill a new pair early, so that that there would be one less thing that had to be done on Christmas Eve after we had gone to bed.
I can remember the Christmas Eve that I learned about Santa Claus. I was so upset when I learned that my mother and dad were going to put up the tree. I wouldn't go into the living room until the tree was up.
My wife has found my old Teddy bear. Are these the original eyes? (I think they are something my wife or mother added later on.) I used to take him to bed with me every night.
This bear, on wheels, was mine. You could ride him. We had a dog too, a big stuffed dog, but one day my sister threw it into the fire. But this one survived. It has a base of steel and you could ride on it.
Some of you may remember a dog that we used to have, an English setter by the name of Schlegel. Schlegel was incorrigible -- but that bear could put him in his place! Schlegel would take one look at it, and then take off.
These are not as old as some of the other things. They are reflectors that used to go on the Christmas tree, behind the lights. They came from Philadelphia. I also have some of the old candle holders that were used on the earlier Christmas trees, before electric lights were used. They are older than these reflectors, which were used with light bulbs.
When we had candles on the tree we always put a bucket of sand and a big bucket of water right near the tree.
When we were living in England we always had "snappers" at Christmas time -- those little paper tubes where you pull a tab and it makes a little "pop" or explosion, and there's a small toy inside. It's an old English tradition to have snappers at Christmas time. They are set at the table, at each place.
This is my Shirley Temple doll. (She's beginning to fall apart.) I'm of the Shirley Temple generation. The real Shirley Temple will be 60 next April  and my doll will be 50 next Christmas .
She was the last doll that I ever received, and she was given to me by a great-uncle. That particular Christmas -- I was 10 years old at the time-- my mother warned me ahead of time that that would be the last Christmas that I would get a doll. I couldn't figure out why, because I enjoyed playing with dolls, and I had quite a collection of them by that time.
That Christmas my mother also gave me a doll too. I named her Annora, and the following February I had a Real sister Annora. But I was certainly surprised to find two dolls under the Christmas tree. I was up at about six o'clock in the morning and saw not one doll, but two! Today poor Shirley needs to have some new elastic put into her.
I had a Shirley Temple doll too, which my mother later gave to a rummage sale. Shirley Temple dolls in good condition are now worth several hundred dollars!
But this was my favorite doll. When my mother gave it back to me, after I was married, she was dressed in different clothes, but I made her a new summer dress, and also a nightie. It's a typical doll of the 1930s; it's a composition doll. (As you can see, some of her fingers are broken off.) I took her down to the Tredyffrin Library a couple of summers ago to have her evaluated - they had a wonderful program on dolls there -- and I was told that these dolls are becoming more and more collectable. Formerly, it was the very fashionable and expensive ones that were the collectibles, but now it seems that the things that people really used are becoming more popular.
This body-less young lady, with her china head sporting a pale blue Tarn o'Shanter, belonged to my mother in the 1890s. One of my mother's favorite stories at that time was "The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew". (As a little girl I too dearly loved this tale of a poor but busy, happy family. Our granddaughter has also recently enjoyed reading it, despite its old-fashioned style.)
So, this is Phonsie, the youngest of the Pepper family. No doubt she is hoping that I will take her to a doll hospital and get a body for her.
This type of doll, with a hand-painted face and neck and a kid body, was very dear in the late 1890s. So, for several reasons, she was one of my very special toys.
This is Fanny. She was my first doll. She has her original clothes on her, except for the shoes and stockings. When I was two years old we had a fire at our house, and she was in the fire with me; when my mother came in she found me holding this doll. This is not her original hair, her hair was singed on the back.
For years this little doll was up in a box in a kitchen cabinet at home. Then when I was married my mother gave her back to me, and I thought I'd dress her up in velvet and put a nice glass dome over her. For some reason, our daughter didn't want to play with dolls, but just recently she took Fanny home with her, to get another wig put on her for me. She also got a nice wicker chair for her to sit in,
This is Elizabeth. And there is a wonderful story that goes with her.
We have an old friend from Boston who was visiting us, and I showed Elizabeth to her. You should have seen this doll and the condition she was in then -- her eyes were out, her hair was off, and a half slip was all she had to wear. So my friend said, "I'd like to take her and dress her for you." My husband was very surprised when I let her take her to Boston, but I did. And when we went up there last fall, there was Elizabeth, still eyeless and needing stringing - but all dressed up!
My friend had made this outfit for her, with a slip and underwear and stockings. She had bought her new shoes, and bought her new hair. Then she thought, "She ought to have another dress" -- and so she made another dress for her. (She called her Annabelle -- she didn't know her name is Elizabeth.) Then she made another dress, with separate underwear to go with it, and yet another dress, which she was wearing the other day Because my granddaughter thought she ought to wear a silk dress. She also has a dress for Christmas. Then my friend thought she ought to have a bag to carry her dresses, so she made a bag to carry her clothes in. And she made extra socks, and bought her a hat and decorated it. And then she made hats for each one of her other outfits, cute little hats that go into a hat bag.
When I sent Elizabeth to Boston she was just wrapped in an old newspaper, but before my friend brought her back here she had gone to Filene's and got a box, which she lined with bumpers and a quilt so that Elizabeth could come home in style.
Can you imagine someone doing all that for a friend?
I took Elizabeth to Miss Reagan -- some of you may know her -- who is an expert on dolls in West Chester, and she put her eyes back in. I also bought some ear rings from her; Elizabeth has pierced ears. Miss Reagan also showed me an old-fashioned wig and said, "This is probably the wig that should be on her, but since she's so gorgeous she should always keep the one she's wearing." The same thing with the shoes; her shoes are too dressy and fancy. Her original shoes are brown and black, and more old-fashioned. They now cost from $25 to $50 a pair!
And that is Elizabeth.
Page last updated: 2009-12-27 at 17:30 EST