Flummoxed by Felix

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Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: I am taking a detour today from my discourse on my London loot and circling back to these fascinating Felix-es I purchased on eBay shortly before my trip. I have labeled this a toy post, but honestly, I have no idea what purpose these served so they may indeed not have been proper toys. However, when I saw them I had to have them and here we are now, on a bright if chilly St. Patrick’s Day morning in New York City, coffee in hand, contemplating them.

For once I believe I really did understand the tiny scale of these pre-purchase – no bigger than a quarter. Of course they came from Great Britain (they call it Great for a reason said the Felix collector) which is still the El Dorado of early Felix items, despite my recent disappointing foray. They are made of wood and appear to have been commercially produced – this wasn’t a pattern in a magazine or someone’s one-of-a-kind. The tiny Felix arm (paw?) on one has broken off. The scale is a tad wonky with the hands a bit enlarged. The bottoms are even and they stand up easily on their own, edges sharp. If they are pieces to a game, the most likely thought – I want it!  Surely they would be considered a choking hazard for small children today – and really, who could blame a small child for wanting to give these an experimental chew? I am sure Cookie and Blackie would give them a gnaw if I allowed it.

Here we are in paragraph 3 and I sort of assume it goes without saying that I have never seen the likes these before. My best guess is that they were markers for some sort of game played by grown ups – like a Bingo variation of some kind. My imagination races – were there Felix game boards or cards? How many variations on Felix are there and, most of all of course, will I ever find the rest of it? These are the most pleasant sort of mysteries of life – small and fascinating hints dropped in my way, leading me on a jolly, if long and winding, path of toy discovery.

Along these lines, I share a photograph I found online recently – it is the box for the Felix game I wrote about recently in my post Chocolate Felix. Just going to show, pieces of the toy puzzle do continue to turn up.

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Travel Cat

 

Cats in Pams-Pictorama.com collection

 

Pam’s Pictorama Post: As I wrote yesterday, I was a bit devastated by the realization that there were no toy dealers at Portobello market on the day I was there. I had really been looking forward to it and one in particular, Mr. Punch’s Old Toys. (I was given the name of two other far flung antique centers which also proved a bust for my purposes – one ultimately specializing in very high-end jewelry, and the other devoted almost exclusively to furniture and lighting.)

However, I did manage to acquire this very nice fellow, shown above, from a man selling ropes of beads and other items from Central Asia. Meanwhile, he had four cat variations on this fellow lined up for sale as well. This one was the largest and his neck swivels which the others did not, enabling him to have what I like to think of as an inquiring look. The seller insisted that it is Steiff, although I see no hole where the Steiff button would have gone. While Steiff certainly made quality toys, it is not an affiliation that I am hung up on either way. I trotted off to an ATM machine and acquired some cash and returned to barter him down a bit before tucking this nice guy in my bag.

Although my collection focuses largely on black cats, I have a bit of a history of picking up striped cats out-of-town, although seeming never online. I like to think it is the expression of a each cat that calls to me. Included here is a random white cat as well. He was purchased in Dresden while on an especially stressful business trip for the Met. I stumbled into an antique store on a free afternoon and found him – or he found me. He cheered me immensely for the remainder of the trip and did a stint in my office as well. The smallest of these was purchased for me by Kim at an antique center in Cold Spring, New York, and is the only one that sports a Steiff button on one ear – although the white one has a hole where a button could have been. The other cat with a bell came from an earlier trip to Cold Spring, and was the first one, purchased in a store more or less dedicated to toys and early holiday decorations I used to visit periodically.

These cats have the appeal of being toys I can easily imagine as a childhood favorite; one that is carried tucked in a stroller or into bed with a child at night. One of the features I like best about the new cat is his long, soft tail, unlike his tail-in-the-air friends. There is a trace of red on the back of his neck which makes me think he too used to sport a red bow like the others. I think his is a sincere face. (I have always thought the smallest one has a very worried expression for a toy cat. Poor kitty!) The kitties with bells have whiskers and I assume there is a chance that all did at one time – these being the most susceptible to disappearing with handling over time. Smallest kitty also has a head that moves – white kitty has had his head re-sewn onto his body, so he could have had a moveable head, but we do not know. I am open to hearing from those of you with more information about whether or not all these cats are Steiff or not. Please do weigh in.

As I wrote in Shanghai Pam and the Toy Store Adventure there is something grounding for me about buying toys while in a far flung places – especially inviting, and on occasion outright comforting, about finding toys while out in the world. These cats currently reside scattered across our apartment, in fact I had trouble finding smallest kitty. I am thinking though that maybe one should head to Columbus Circle and take up residence in my office. Currently no toys reside there and maybe new kitty could take up residence for moral support and offer his inquiring yet welcoming look to all.

 

 

This Little Piggy

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: More toys today as the birthday bonanza continues and today is the second of several posts devoted to the subject.

I believe I have mentioned that it is our habit to spend the day on or near my birthday just me and Kim poking around some haunts I have found or we haven’t been to in awhile. This year my birthday fell conveniently on a Sunday. Having said that, it was a torrential, monsoon-like downpour the entire day. Nonetheless, we put on our boots and our storm coats and headed downtown. I had a line on a toy seller who I had attempted to hunt down in midtown (he was closed the day I went), but I had subsequently moved to Chelsea – and now we discover sadly there is only a single building housing a number of vendors. This shop is called simply The Antique Toy Shop New York (theantiquetoyshop-new york is the link) which does make it turn up conveniently in internet searches on the subject.

We hadn’t been to this area in Chelsea in a long time and did not realized that the garage weekend market, where we had spent numerous happy hours, is now gone, along with the building full of vendors next to it. (Kim and I can both remember when in addition to these there were two huge lots on 26th and 27th, now the site of enormous high rise buildings, were the weekend playground of those of us who like to pick through piles of old and ancient stuff.) So it was a sobering start to the day and as the rain grew ever harder Kim and I dashed east into the building on the south side of 25th Street, me no longer feeling confident about our mission. We wandered the aisles, dripping, poking our heads into various dealers enclaves, pausing briefly to dally in a rather fabulous space devoted to wind-up phonographs, old radios and a single ancient tv which showed an image. While we have been tempted to purchase a portable wind-up player for 78’s in the past, and they had a beaut, it is not a current focus (where would we put it?) and after enjoying the atmosphere and music for a bit we pushed on.

At last, on the landing heading up to the second floor, I saw a case with a few toys and I knew we were finally hot on the trail! Indeed, above and right near the staircase was a tiny space, packed tight with toys and a man taking photos of large gauge metal vehicles on the floor. The proprietor, Jean-Pol Ventugol, welcomed us in we squeezed our soaked selves into his space. I placed my bag on the floor, the better to maneuver in the pleasantly cramped space – chock-a-block full of glorious toys – but even my coat was catching on precious toys.

Perhaps luckily for me, it wasn’t a cat bonanza or we could have broken the bank quickly as his prices, definitely fair, were not bargain basement and he is stocked with fine, high-end items. There were numerous toys that I had never seen that appealed to my broad collecting taste which were not cats however. Among them two especially attractive Steiff dogs and two fine examples of French growlers – which for those of you not in the know are large paper mache bulldogs ,complete with raffia ruffs, which open and close their mouths and, well, growl. (I have wanted one for a very long time, and I will find mine one day I am sure.)

Mr. Ventugol warmed to the subject as I asked questions about various toys and asked to see several as I made up my mind. As we got into toys a bit and he understood my predilections showed us this a really splendid early French game, bad photo of it below, which is ancient, but electric and the cats and witch’s eyes light up when you hit the witch with a small ball! Amazing!

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Early French Mere Michel game, not in Pictorama collection – yet anyway!

 

There was also an early Snow White top, the kind where you pump it to make it spin, which Kim was deeply enamored of. For me, taking wallet and desire into consideration, it came down to a celluloid wind-up Bonzo I have been chasing at auction for awhile, or this rather excellent, wind-up pig below. In the end, Bonzo’s fragility terrified me. (Pictorama readers know of my Fear of Celluloid despite some indulgences in that area such as my extraodinary Happy Life Toy – a truly beloved possession!)

This sturdy Schuco toy I settled on is a somewhat surprising choice – although his sheer heft and excellent condition is a joy. (His tiny but solid and nicely marked Schuco key winds him up.) However, it was his movement that got me in the end. I am a sucker for wind-up toys with great movement and he is a joy when he fiddles! He is an early version of one of the Three Little Pigs, which was ultimately produced again and again in lesser versions. He is, I believe, from the first trio, I assume made shortly after the Disney cartoon shot them into fame in 1933. I show a photo from the internet of all three with their boxes.

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All 3 Little Pigs, not in Pictorama collection

 

Oddly, I realized as I prepared to write this that a number of years ago, five or six I think, I purchased another wind-up pig on my birthday. (What does this unconscious tradition say about me I wonder?) I procured this little porcine fellow, below, online from a dealer on the Ruby Lane website. I put together a birthday buy with some other tin toys, but this fellow was best of the group. He has no markings and he is a bit loose in his joints, but I just love the little cane he carries and his jaunty hat perched atop of his head!

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Unmarked wind-up pig, Pams-Pictorama.com collection

 

So, as we leave this post, I purchase this fine fiddle playing fellow, and have of course pledged to return to The Antique Toy Shop another day. Bonzo awaits  perhaps, as do I hope many other, yet undiscovered toys. Thank you Jean-Paul!

Here are short videos of both in motion! Schuco Pig, Pams-Pictorama.com Collection and Pams-Pictorama.com Wind-up Pig 2.

Foxy Squirrel?

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Al the Squirrel Aesop Fable doll from Pams-Pictorama.com collection

 

Pam’s Pictoram Toy Post: Oh joy and bliss! My first of several post-birthday posts is devoted to this utterly magnificent birthday gift from Kim, the most unusual of the Aesop Fable dolls in some ways. This toy came to me via a lovely toy dealer in Belgium, Regine Beghin, who has been the source of several holiday and birthday acquisitions in recent years. I will hope that my travels eventually land me nearby so I can say hello in person one day. (That does of course have the potential to be a very expensive trip indeed.)

Unlike his brethren, this is the only one of the dolls I know of with a very different body type, a strangely long skinny neck and puffy tail. As seen in this publicity photo below, the others are largely interchangeable bodies, different heads, clothes and expressions. So now comes the big question – what animal exactly does my new friend portray and what is his name? Looking at my prior research, presented in my post Mine, all mine…at long last – a personal favorite post – I listed the names for those characters as identified on the back of the photo, but realize this fellow remained nameless!

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Photo from the Pams-Pictorama.com collection

 

Google remains stubbornly inadequate on information about these Aesop Fable toys. In fact, it has gotten to where Google images on the subject are mostly my toys and posts! I reached out, deep into the toy network, and tapped a friend who I consider the Kingpin of Toy Lore. Mel agreed that he had always thought this was a fox (Max Fox perhaps?), but in examining the Aesop Fable hankies book – he owns his own copy, but some of you know this was recently the subject of some covetousness on eBay by yours truly – all the characters are laid out and identified. It would appear, as shown below, that this fellow isn’t a fox (or a wolf) after all – he is evidently Al Squirrel! (This and some much more can be seen at melbirnkrant.com.)

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Collection of Mel Birnkrant – melbirnkrant.com

 

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Collection of Mel Birnkrant – melbirnkrant.com

 

I must say, on the face of it a squirrel seems like a strange animal to attempt immortalized as a cartoon character. I kind of like the fact that they gave him such a straightforward name – Al. Upon reflection, perhaps a wolf or a fox carries negative cartoon connotations. (Think Three Little Pigs for starters.) Squirrels, on the other hand, are industrious, hard working little fellows. I suppose more likable – although the image above is anything but, holding a dead rabbit and a ditty about shooting a bee. Hmmm. Bottom, line, he is clearly a bit of a stretch aesthetically – more foxy than squirrelly  however.

I will note that this little fellow of mine seems to have replacement eyes (as above all of the dolls with open eyes have flat black pasted on ones, mostly but not all pie-eyed) and as a toy collector I should care about that, but his eyes are very fitting and I admit to liking them very much despite being later replacements. Otherwise his is in very good shape overall.

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Detail, Al the Squirrel Aesop Fable doll, Pams-Pictorama.com collection

 

In the process of writing this post I realized something else – in the above photo the Countess, the character at the far right, has different feet than all the others. I own two (yes, two – for the most recent acquisition see the post about that variation on a theme Aesop Fable Doll – the Prize!) Countess dolls and neither has those strange feet. Additionally, in what I now think of as true Aesop Fable tradition, my friend mentioned above also noted that his “hankie book” had a different cover than the one on eBay.

Finally, to muddy the waters further, below I share a photo of a partial doll I have, given to me by my friend Zach Sigall a few years ago. This was clearly another variation on the Wolf, Fox, Squirrel figure and is substantially different than our friend Al. Although his tail is missing, he doesn’t have the skinny neck and there’s no indication he had the fat tail. Unlike the other dolls his eyes are painted on and could not come off at all – other dolls seem to have eyes that are very firmly attached, but applied on. If we are using the hankie book as a reference or guide this fellow does not seem to have a match – perhaps there is a Max Fox after all.

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Mystery doll fragment, Pams-Pictorama.com collection

 

I remain totally enthralled and fascinated by what appears to be the mix and match mysterious nature of this enterprise. I cannot help but wonder if, like the East End shop I wrote about that churned out many of the more off-model Felix toys I enjoy today, this was not also a fairly small company that just randomly combined pieces to assemble these toys. Meanwhile, as for me, that means that I can dream about there being almost endless variation on each of these toys I can hope to some day find!

Wonderful Waldo

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: This simply amazing item comes via Facebook friend Roy Conolly appearing unexpectedly in the mail the other day. I am stunned by the Waldo wonderfulness of it in numerous ways – the first being that it is a crocheted doll that looks like Waldo! Amazing! How fabulous, thoughtful and most of all impressively clever it is for someone to have done. I freely admit that I come at it from the perspective of someone who has tried, but is utterly incapable of effectively knitting or crocheting a stitch. People have tried to teach me over the years, but to say I am all thumbs would be a true understatement. It is just a path that my eyes and hands cannot or will not merge into a coherent methodology.

Awhile back I wrote about the existence of pattern kits for the knitting of large Felix the cat dolls in my post Homemade Mickey where also I opine on my lack of ability in this area. While our crocheted friend is a somewhat less enormous project, he was of course conceived of without the benefit of a pattern, making it impressive indeed. In my mind he possesses a lovely similarity to the very first Felix I ever purchased at a flea market in London. (Shown below.) I believe this Felix was a prize to be won at a fair – for winning at knockdown dolls or something similar. Our new Waldo doll hails from that part of the world as well and I like the implied symmetry. Roy tells me that his friend Nita made it so I am giving a shout out to her as well. Yay Nita! Yay Roy! Thank you so much!

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My first Felix, Pams-Pictorama.com collection

 

To my knowledge, this crocheted fellow brings the total of three-dimensional Waldo renditions in the world to three. One, executed by the master Mr. Deitch himself, executed in Sculpey many years ago, wandered back to us recently after many years. There is also a really extraordinary cotton felt Waldo made by our friends Tony and Sue Eastman, a number of years ago now, which sits on a shelf near where I write now. Those both fascinating tales of their own which I will share at a future time. (And of course for those of you up on your Deitch-ian lore there are those Waldo dolls which spewed out of that volcanic explosion in the South Seas back in Stuff of Dreams #1, eventually collected in Alias the Cat. We’re still looking for evidence of those! The $1k offer stands…)

Meanwhile, I will be returning to the scene of that and other flea market crimes later this month when I travel briefly to London with the gentlemen of my beloved Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra. Tales of early morning flea market finds will hopefully follow. Although Paris may rival London for some in flea markets (and I picked up a thing or two in Berlin once admittedly) having once lived in London and made many subsequent trips there (albeit not for more than a decade now) the flea markets of London are a beloved and well worn path for me and decidedly my favorite treat of this kind in the world. The above Felix came from a splendid market in south London called Bermondsey. If I remember correctly, I arrived at that market shortly after stumbling off an overnight plane trip, with my friend Elyse, for a long weekend flea market and museum attack many years ago. Felix was sitting on a table among unrelated items and I, a fan of the silent cartoons, purchased him up immediately. He is, in fact, my very first Felix.

When I brought Felix home Kim said he looked like someone had killed and skinned a demon and reacted with mock horror when I installed him at the foot of the bed, where several antique stuffed cats of more generic nature already resided. It took me a number of years to get Kim to accept that this is indeed Felix and we argued amicably about it ongoing. It wasn’t until other grinning, demonic renditions of Felix started to appear in the house, and pile up on the bedroom shelves, that the pattern emerged I guess. As you know, the rest is Pictorama collecting history.

 

And the Winner is Felix!

Pam’s Pictorama Post: This Felix came up on a Milestone auction and I put a bid on it, and numerous other things, and essentially forgot about it while I got absolutely creamed on a Aesop’s Fable doll that I thought I had in the bag. I am generally pretty philosophical about auctions and you have to be because, much like the rest of life, you are going to win some and lose others. However, as Facebook friends of Kim’s and Pictorama readers may already know, sometimes I howl like a scalded cat about a particularly painful loss. (Or even win – there was the Felix ukulele that I won on eBay and then the seller refused to sell it to me.) Meanwhile, I had completely forgotten that I tossed a bid onto this fellow in the same auction when I received a notice that I won him.

I never buy pieces like this because we have little space for them and they are too fragile to survive easily in the general melee that I think of when I consider our one-room, office to Kim and home to us and the two cats. Stuffed animals survive better than china and while I do make exceptions (such as the plates in my post Living the Felix Life, and the occasionally family heirloom such as featured in Ann’s Glass) even celluloid toys give me the willies, as mentioned in Fear of Celluloid. Still, I like this little fellow and I was pleased to have him show up right before Christmas which made him a gift to myself. He has the early Felix features that are pointy and just a tiny bit crude – toothy and like he might just take a bite out of you. He has found purchase (and hopefully safe haven) on a book shelf near the above mentioned family heirloom.

I show his back below and his markings. Other than Made in England I cannot make out the rest. Please let me know if any of you smart folks out there know more. The listing for him said he may have had restoration, but frankly if he did they did a superb job. I cannot find any. He appears to be seamed along the back which must have something to do with the mold he was cast from.

 

Evidently I come by my ferocious love of auctions genetically. My father’s mother (Grandma Butler to me, Gertie to others) was an auction addict and I often reflect that she would have adored eBay as much as I do if had she lived long enough to see it. Instead, auctions in her day were the kind where you went and sat in dusty rooms and bid in person. In that way, she accumulated large ornate furniture – carved and inlaid cabinets and desks, ornate lamps and side tables, mirrors and outsized Persian carpets (those having once graced hotel lobbies if I understand correctly) all of which I grew up with first in her house and then in our own after her death. This furniture was in stark contrast to my own parent’s taste which ran to the simplicity of early American furniture, but somehow we mashed it all together into coherence.

I could have learned to love visiting auctions and the excitement of bidding in person I am sure. My options of what I collected would have been considerably different however, since virtually all I buy comes from far flung countries, or at least far and wide across this one. Felix items and photos in particular seem to have flourished primarily in Great Britain and Australia as far as I can tell. Additionally I have the convenience of bidding on auctions at all hours of the day and night, often clad in my pj’s. (Full disclosure, I am wearing them now as I write this.) Given my work schedule it does allow me to do more auction perusing than visits to auction houses could possibly allow.

Nonetheless, I am sure that like all things, something was lost – perhaps the other bidders who you get know in a casual way or only by sight, or perhaps the tactile advantage of being able to examine and handle something in person before bidding. Knowing my grandmother she attended those auctions dressed in a brocade suit (she favored pattern and color) make-up done, red lipstick and hair piled high – bright with jewelry both real and costume – she loved both. I will never know the day in and day out of that experience, but I do know that the Butler clan is an auction loving one and this addition to the Pictorama collection is further evidence of it.

 

Squeaky Cat Head

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: I have made much of fragile toys in other posts – mostly those devoted to brittle, delicate celluloid or equally ancient plastic. Today I focus on another toy, recently purchased, that was probably originally intended to have a similarly short life-span. This cat head, just a bit smaller than an actual cat head (I proved this by holding it up to Cookie shortly after arrival) hails from 1925, and it is my guess that no one imagined that it would still be kicking around, rolling forward to our current day, more than 90 years later. It is in fact unlikely, although not impossible, that the small child this was purchased for is still among us while this presumably disposable toy is.

For me there is a solid classic design to it that makes it almost archetypal. It is easy to imagine it as a prop in a silent film – or clutched in my hand as a toddler in the late ’60’s, or even today if it was a tad bit less frail. When I spotted it I wanted it immediately. While we can assume that the paint has faded with age over time and there is a dent in the back, I think it appears pretty much the way it most likely always did. I assume, without knowing, that it most likely squeaked when pressed at one time, there is a silver button on the bottom. It no longer squeaks, but there is a date, 1925, on the bottom with some other bits of information about the maker I can just make out. It reads, US Patent Nov. 18 1924 Jan 6 1925 Katnips Inc. Providence RI. I looked, but could not find information about the bygone Katnips company.

I found a listing for another one for sale online and that person was proposing that it is actually a cat toy. He or she must have some outsize cats! My Cookie and Blackie have shown little interest in this item – except that when I opened the package an amazing smell burst out – that old, attic-y, dusty age odor. Kim once called this the smell of nostalgia. Cookie was entranced by this and took a wide-eyed snoot full of it. It set her whiskers twitching!

I cannot even imagine what flashes through a cat brain when dissecting a smell like this, but I have always imagined that it is colorful and wild. While I don’t find this smell unpleasant, it is still more interesting than good. It snaps me back to attics, some houses and even antique stores I have known. Given my collecting interests it isn’t an uncommon smell, although perhaps not as frequent as you might think. Meanwhile, here in New York City it isn’t unusual to pass a construction site where a very old building is being torn down and be smacked with a variation of that smell. Strange, but somehow time passed, years and the life of a building or a toy, gets encapsulated in a smell. It comes out of nowhere as you hurry along say East 86th Street, a 19th or early 20th century smell, living again for a moment in your brain. Like Cookie, I pause for a moment and inhale that dusty (probably asbestos filled) smell and consider, before returning to my hurried walk and the email on my cell phone.