King of the Cat Tin Toys

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: When I started collecting toy cats, in those days prior to the internet, I assumed that someday I would eventually discover an El Dorado of wind-up cat tin toys. After all, toy cats in other forms are very popular so of course there would be a number of interesting ones, right? However, about a decade into buying toys on the internet I realized otherwise. Frankly (surprisingly) there just aren’t dozens of models of tin toy cats. Variations on this cat with a ball seems to be the primary heir apparent and I have been hunting this version for quite awhile. The smaller and more widely available version, also made by Marx (shown below swiped off the internet) is a friction toy – the same essential design of a cat and ball, but I believe without knowing for certain, that mine is the earlier model. Today’s toy comes courtesy of Santa Deitch with thanks as Christmas in January posts continue here at Pictorama.

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The Marx toy company was founded in 1919 and stayed in business until roughly 1980. (Theirs was the less than memorable slogan, One of the many Marx toys, have you all of them?) Marx was an American toy company and was certainly one of the best known in its day. They seem to have focused on tin toys (windup and friction) and the quality was good enough that even many of their early ones survive today – many variations on trains, but also some character toys depicting such favorites as Popeye and Little Orphan Annie.

Both this kitty and the smaller later version, had leather ears which universally seem to have disappeared from them. (Mine has a single ear held on with an ancient bit of scotch tape however.) It remains a bit of a mystery to me, now that I own this kitty, exactly how it worked. Sadly he no longer does work, and it is also unclear to me exactly what the mechanism was originally. I would be pleased to hear form anyone who knows. I long assumed that this was a wind-up, but there doesn’t seem to be a place for a key. If he was a friction toy (now my best guess) it isn’t clear how that worked either – or why it not longer does. His tail would have gone up and down and that he must be been very jolly indeed. I love his red ball and the graphics on him are splendid. He must have made a lot of children very happy before arriving here at Deitch Studio to entertain us.

 

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Shake, Rattle and Roll

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: Ah yes, a New Year and Pictorama is back to the toys. Christmas came late this year at Deitch Studio and these two splendid entries found their way from Belgium just before we rang in the New Year. Forget spoons, oh to be the youngster born with these silver rattles in their mouths!

I have bid on Felix rattles once or twice before and have always been bested so I leapt at the chance to purchase this hotsy-totsy one. Those of you who follow my ramblings know I have a special soft spot for off-model, primitive Felix-es like the one employed here. The rattle is marked sterling and I have shined him up a bit to have his photo taken although he is somewhat fragile. There is evidence of some dents that suggest gummy gnawing, although not really any deep dents. He is in an interesting semi-profile pose. (I was given a pocket watch that was my great-grandfather’s a few months ago. I took it to the jeweler to have a chain made so I could wear it that way, and he pointed out a dent where someone had bitten it. He said it was very common to see in gold pocket watches. I gather people would sort of mindlessly chomp on them. I have been puzzling over that adult form of teething ever since.)

The mother of pearl ring is very beautiful. Extremely elegant! If it wasn’t so fragile I would be tempted to wear it as a necklace. It does still rattle as well, a fairly quiet sound, although perhaps a bit noisy for a necklace now that I think about it that way.

The deal was already struck on Felix when the dealer, someone I have now known for a number of years, sent the photo of Bonzo and asked if I would be interested in him as well. Of course I was. After a short conference with Santa in the form or Mr. Deitch, we snatched him up too. Although the rings are more or less the same size, Bonzo is much bigger than Felix and a robust three dimensional rendition. Sleepy Bonzo clutches a baby bottle (you’d never see Felix with one of those I don’t think – not with milk in it anyway) and he has a rattle that is much more like a tinkling bell. (When I took him out of the package Cookie’s eyes lit up at the sound. She was clearly thinking that a lovely antique silver cat toy had just been delivered for her delectation and her attention needed to be directed elsewhere.) Bonzo’s eyes are just barely open, and if you look carefully, his lip is curled in a smile on one side.

Bonzo is less fragile than Felix and really could perhaps even resume his duties as the recipient of child chewing, although we will not test that theory. (Nor will we let Cookie take possession of him.) He is not marked sterling so I will assume he is plate – although he shined up nicely as well, the plate in good condition – after all, how much time did anyone devote to keeping their child’s rattle polished I wonder? A quick internet search shows that the Bonzo rattle is the more available. Although as I say above I have seen Felix rattles, none turn up immediately in a Google search.

I have never purchased a silver rattle as a baby gift, although price notwithstanding, now that I think of it a silver rattle like these is a rather wonderful gift. A quick check informs me that Tiffany is not offering a silver rattle this season – let alone one of Felix or Bonzo. However, the Tiffany bear below appears to be of recent vintage and can be yours on the Tradesy site for prices ranging from a mere $250-$650. I think I will stick with copies of The Story About Ping and The Cricket in Times Square (posts of those favorite childhood books can be found here and here) as my go to baby gift, but I must say the Tiffany bear is a very fair offspring to Felix and especially Bonzo. For those of you with deeper pockets and a generous nature, you might consider such an investment in the future of a baby you know.

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Having Your Cake

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Photo of the first piece of the first try – too many raisins and before adding a dusting of confectionary sugar

 

Pam’s Pictorama: The holidays came late this year to those of us at Pictorama and therefore I ask for your indulgence as tidbits continue to pepper these posts in coming weeks. One reason for this is fairly self-evident – generally I am a cheerleader for making the most of what is good about the holidays, but with my dad’s death in August, none of us much had the stomach for it and we approached Thanksgiving gingerly. Setting the bar low helped, and we limped through without any group weep-a-thons, although I guess that would have been okay too.

At some point in the days before Christmas, I found myself reading the electronic version of the New York Times (something I do early in the morning over breakfast while Kim is already grinding away at his pages at the other end of the table) and as usual continued reading on my (usually) brief train ride on the Q to midtown. I believe I was on the Q when I read an essay about a lost fruit cake which had been sent to the author by his father several months before the father died. The cake was from a company, not homemade, and never arrives, but the son ultimately orders another and eats it. I had two reactions to this essay. The first was to get weepy – believe me, when I started the essay I had no idea a father was going to die in it or I wouldn’t have chosen it. However, more important to today’s story, it carried a reference to Poor Man’s cake which is something I have not thought about in years, and frankly thought was a term that might only be known to my family and that I had no idea was in general use.

A Poor Man’s cake, also known as a Depression cake, is one that doesn’t require the use of eggs, sugar or butter – all things that were in short supply during the war and Depression years. Like fruitcake, it will keep in your refrigerator or freezer for a long time – although as my mother pointed out when asked, we never put it to the test as we always consumed it in full immediately. It was a staple in my grandmother’s repertoire, at the heart of an ongoing rotation of recipes and it was as likely as not that she’d throw one together if she was in the house. (So often did she make certain recipes – this one, her one for bread which was heavenly and some of her Christmas cookies – that actual recipes seemed to elude her when asked. My sister Loren did work on writing some down. It was all a bit of this and that, done by touch and texture.) As I teased out my memory of her version of the cake, I remembered that it utilized boiled coffee, margarine (or bacon fat as an alternative) and molasses.

I became mildly obsessed with re-creating the cake. Maybe I needed a holiday distraction of sorts. Meanwhile, for those of you who aren’t familiar with my origin story – when younger I actually did time as a pastry chef (and a garde manger) working under, among others, Jean Georges Vongerichten at his first restaurant in Manhattan. That is clearly another whole post, but I mention it to say, while I definitely know my way around pastry, I haven’t made so much as a loaf of banana bread in years. Here at Deitch Studio, we’re pretty maniacally careful eaters (green smoothies, largely vegetarian) and while we might happily eat a bit of cake or pastry out in the world, I do not buy it, let alone produce it. Suffice it to say that the baking muscle has seriously atrophied, and executing even this simple cake required some both metaphorical and real dusting off of things.

In addition, the Pictorama kitchen is a tiny thing. I have often lamented that if we got a large dog it wouldn’t even fit in our kitchen. With some forethought I can claim a space of about six square inches to work on our limited counter space. Ironically, working in professional kitchens in Manhattan was good practice for this as I never had more than about a foot of space to work in – real estate is at a premium for them as well. Storage is another issue and as I did a quick assessment I realized my cooking supplies are somewhat pared down.

As I remember, my grandmother often used a Pyrex loaf dish. I know I owned or had owned one of these – I actually did make banana bread in it at one point. A quick search did not however turn it up. It either wandered out of the house in a cabinet purge, or has skulked far out of reach. (I did however find a pastry scale – so serious were my past baking endeavors – and the possible purge of a Pyrex dish while keeping that does seem somewhat ironic.) Undeterred, I turned to eBay and within 48 hours and for $5 I had one that was identical to what I remember. There were things I decided I could forgo, such as a flour sifter and a cooling rack.

Happily in the age of Google it took no time at all to find a number of recipes and by piecing them together I began reconstructing my grandmother’s version of the cake. The recipe I offer below is an amalgam of several recipes. I have replaced sugar with molasses, butter/bacon fat with margarine, water with coffee. Additionally I have changed the seasoning. There was much debate about the use of ground cloves and my mother remembers my grandmother using them, but I found them overwhelming in my first go at this and struck them out subsequently. I cut the amount of raisons – the original recipes called for two cups which seemed absurdly heavy. I realized that the recipe I took most of this from used baking soda and I used baking powder – I’ll probably try baking soda next time. As you can see from the photos, it is a pleasant looking cake, but not a real beauty. It is some rib sticking coffee cake – vegan for that matter as well.

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Cake two in the Pyrex loaf pan – yum!

 

I finished the cake with a sprinkling of powdered sugar which was what my grandmother did most often. (Oddly, the Upper East Side of Manhattan was literally sold out of powdered sugar. After trying Whole Foods and Gristedes, I purchased the very last bag at Fairway. Holiday cookies I assume? Weird, right? I began to wonder if people had stopped using it.) I have a memory of her occasionally using a chocolate glaze on it as well, although mom doesn’t remember that.

Even with my first try, the cake emerged as something close to what I remember. (I credit this with it being pretty much a no fault recipe!) Years of after school snacks, in evidence at every holiday and many weekend mornings was this cake. It had been a part of my life growing up that was a constant and I never really thought about until it was gone. My mother has never been a baker and when my sister died much of the family baking lore went with her. While asking about the cake, my mother and I have had several wonderful talks about other food we remember my grandmother making. She and her sisters were all gifted chefs – one sister owned a restaurant and was a private cook in wealthy homes.

Cake #2, shown with sugar at the top and made yesterday, is now tucked in my bag as I head to New Jersey this morning. I am anxious to show it off to my mother and cousin who will be stopping by for a piece later. I don’t know that it will become a staple here, but I suspect we can count on my making the occasional one now that I am getting the hang of it. There’s always my office, ready to consume some additional carbs if we are overwhelmed by my new cake ambitions.

Reading the recipes online I saw some complaints about some of the recipes running dry. I have not had that issue at all and suspect that the replace of sugar with molasses helps with that. I also think the loaf pan is better than the suggested two small cake pans as thinner cakes will cook faster and be more prone to drying out. I have included the nutritional information although I would imagine that it is a bit skewed with the adjustments I have made, likely lower calories and carbs with fewer raisins and no bacon fat!

Recipe:

  • 4 tablespoons of molasses
  • 2 cups coffee
  • 2 tablespoons margarine
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • Confectionary sugar to taste for topping

Directions:

  1. In a medium saucepan combine the molasses, coffee, margarine, and raisins, over medium heat. Bring to a boil for 5 minutes, then set aside to cool.
  2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C). Grease and flour a loaf pan.
  3. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Add the ingredients, a little at a time, from the saucepan and mix until well blended. 
  4. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes in the preheated oven. (Test with a knife to see if cooked through.) Cool in pan for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack (if you own one!) to cool completely.
  5. Sprinkle confectionary sugar or add chocolate glaze once cool.
Nutrition Facts:
Per Serving: 174 calories; 1.4  39.6  2  1  158 

Babes

 

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: I have a dim but distinct memory of being about ten years old, sitting on the floor of my bedroom during the holidays and frowning my way through part of Babes in Toyland on television, which some adult (mom, dad, grandmother most likely candidates) had told me I would like. I didn’t. It wasn’t funny and the singing interested me not at all. Somewhat ambivalent on the subject of Laurel and Hardy to begin with, this was especially thin fare in my mind. And that, somewhat uninformed opinion, would remain my response to inquiries on the subject (should they arise – rarely, but occasionally they did) for the next more than four decades – until Christmas Eve of 2018 when I was in front of my television, disinclined to get up and do what needed to be done on the holiday front, and with a dearth of alternate television viewing options. I noted the TCM jolly up next listing box with a small frisson of annoyance, and then settled back on our generous couch where Cookie was already installed – she likes television. After a few minutes Kim joined us.

I had known the 1934 Hal Roach film originally under the alternate re-issue title of March of the Wooden Soldiers, although I am too old for that first partial viewing to have been colorized. I am vaguely aware that such a thing exists. Evidently it was originally issued in sepiatone and this was a nice black and white copy. Based on the 1903 operetta Babes in Toyland the film culls out six songs by Victor Herbert, and for someone whose musical sweet spot is somewhere between 1920 and 1939 I loved the music this time around.

In case you too have been avoiding it all these years, the plot is as simple as can be – a widow facing the cruel choice between being forced from her home because she can’t make a mortgage payment, or sacrifice her daughter to the evil holder of this debt. The best part of the film however is that the whole thing takes place in Toyland and there is all sorts of wonderful cavorting around in animal costumes. I love the appearance of the 3 Little Pigs, an apparent nod to a 1930’s Walt Disney – but of course it is the “fiddle” playing cat (the fiddle being a cello does give a good look here and doesn’t prevent the cat from leaping up and running around) and the bizarre rendition of an early Mickey Mouse which held me in thrall! I almost fell off the couch. (This number in the film can be seen on Youtube here.)

Many of you film fans will know this, but this outsized fiddling cat does a spirited chase of Mickey Mouse through Toyland’s town square early in the film, although they begin and end the number, as buddies – as shown in my photo here. They reappear for the spectacular finale, Mickey in a nightshirt this time and let me tell you, I wouldn’t mind finding the right still from that part of the film to add to my collection. Meanwhile, animal suited performers with the whiff of their vaudeville days of glory still clinging to them, captured performing like this in the first few decades of film, are much sought after by me. (My post dedicated to animal impersonator Alfred Latell, which can be found here, is one of the most popular – there will be a follow-up to it in a future post. Sadly there doesn’t seem to be known film of him performing.)

The other dramatic point in the film is the love interest being accused of having taken one of the 3 Little Pigs – sausage links were planted in his house! As mentioned above, the close of the film is a wild chase through Toyland by the evil mortgage holder and his army from Boogeyland. (The boogeymen are said to be a combination of animal and human and, in my opinion, must have informed the design of the Morlocks in the 1960 The Time Machine.) The boogeymen are eventually conquered by the out-sized, wooden soldiers of the alternate title. More great eye kicks in the form of the now night-shirted 3 Little Pigs, Mickey and fiddling Cat, are a glory at the end of the film. (Again, just the finale, can be found here – really though, might as well watch the whole film!)

I sheepishly admit that it is my dubious, multi-tasking habit to have my iPad with me while lazing in front of the television and in this case, the closing credits had not rolled before I had miraculously secured this original still off of eBay. The fiddling cat was played by an uncredited Pete Gordon – I can find no evidence as to how much time he did performing in an animal suit, however as he was born in 1887 my vaudeville conjecture could be a valid theory. The real kick in the head is that Mickey Mouse in the film was played by a monkey! Once you know this it makes perfect sense – the size being too small for a child who would have had to have been very agile for the part. That was one well trained little fellow though! The monkey is uncredited and Mickey is mostly noted as playing himself, if credited at all.

The remaining, burning question for me was about Walt Disney’s feelings on the subject of Mickey and the 3 Pigs and whether or not the rights for these were compensated. My trusty iPad had an internet reply to this inquiry immediately. According to several sources, it turns out that in Mickey’s nascent youth (he was about 8 years old at the time) Disney had not yet developed his litigious copyright mania, nor was his studio the behemoth it ultimately became – Hal Roach would have held the clout in those days. In addition to Mickey’s appearance, the Disney number, Whose Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? does an instrumental turn and was of course very much a Disney property. Walt, who was evidently friendly with Laurel and Hardy as well as Roach, must have seen the characters’ feature in this film as promotion for his properties, rather than a threat.

Happily for me, it was the best hour and 46 minutes of television viewing I was to stumble across over the holidays and this jolly photo added to my collection is my great memento.