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New York Toy Exhibit Brings Back Memories of Handmade Doll Era - 2003-12-24


New York City is celebrating the holiday season with a special exhibition of antique toys and dolls.

For 91-year-old Ruth Bogel, a dainty white lace dress on an antique doll brings back memories of the handmade clothes her mother sewed for her as a child in a small town in the southwestern state of Oklahoma.

But Ms. Bogel says she never owned such a fancy doll. "I got an unbreakable doll on Christmas, so my older brother, who was two years older, took it out to the backyard to test it with a hammer," she recalled. "I never forgave him."

More than 100 dolls and toys on loan from a large collection at the Museum of the City of New York are part of a holiday exhibition at Manhattan's UBS gallery, just minutes away from the nation's most famous Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.

A sample of the museum's vast collection of paintings, photographs, watercolors and prints of historic and contemporary New York winter scenes are also on display to help celebrate the holiday season. Works include a Currier and Ives lithograph of elegant couples ice skating in Central Park in 1858 and photographs from a heavy blizzard in 1899.

But the antique dolls are the highlight of the exhibition. Nineteenth century European dolls with fragile porcelain heads and soft velvet and silk dresses contrast with the classic American dolls made out of simple material, such as papier mache.

A doll from the Civil War-era wearing a dress with small American flags is on view. So is a Raggedy Ann doll from 1919 with its characteristic orange yarn hair and cloth face. During a time of year when many Americans are focused on the newest toys, curator Sheila Clark says visitors are eager to see the classic collection

"There is a tremendous amount of nostalgia surrounding old toys," she said. "And this is partly because people have their own memories, perhaps a grandparent of theirs had a toy like this once, or maybe they remember something from their own childhood."

Several plastic Barbie and Ken dolls, wearing trendy outfits from the 1950s and 1960s, are featured.

The exhibition also features antique, hand made wooden toys, such as puzzles with the faded image of the jolly Christmas character, Santa Claus. They are shown alongside children's carved animals from the 1820s, cast-iron vehicles and finely painted tin toy trains.

The show also explores the history of the teddy bear. The cuddly bears were created by German toy maker Margrete Steiff in the early 20th century. At about the same time, candy store owners in Brooklyn, New York, named Rose and Morris Michtom, were making similar stuffed toy animals in the United States.

The story goes, in 1902, then-President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear cub on a hunting trip. After a famous political cartoon was published about the episode, Mr. Michtom set a small bear toy in the store window.

Curator Sheila Clark explains, Mr. Michtom began selling the bears, which he named for the president. "He began to be concerned that he was using the name teddy bear without the permission of the president, so he contacted the White House and the president, of course, generously gave his permission to name the bear 'teddy.' And that is why they all began to be named 'teddy bear,'" she said.

Morris Michtom, who went on to found the Ideal Toy Company, was one of many prominent early 20th century toy makers based in New York.

Ninety-year-old Clare Shapiro, of the New York toy company, "Clare's Creations," looks at a case filled with stuffed animal toys she made decades ago.

"Some of these were on my first job, like the hard realistic ones, the polar bear, the duck, the deer, and the squirrel," she said. "These were more like hard, realistic [dolls]. And then, in my own business, I started to make softer toys, like the sleeping 'Chessie Cat.'"

Some vintage toys, made out of heavy material with sharp edges, would not pass today's safety standards. Still, Ms. Shapiro laments the mass production of toys today.

"It is another world," said Ms. Shapiro. "They are just mass produced. The toys I made, a toy was not right unless a child's eye lit up when they saw it. Then I knew it was good."

Most of the toys on display at the exhibition are considered antiques and many of them would be worth thousands of dollars on the market.

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