Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Susan Drinan

Artifact: Toy (Schoenhut Company)

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Toy dromedary camel, c. 1915, manufactured by the A. Schoenhut Company. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent purchase, 1980, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

Arabian, or dromedary, camels would have been exotic creatures to the American public in 1907, when this wooden toy was introduced by the A. Schoenhut Company of Philadelphia. Part of a set of circus animals, the camel with its glass eyes, open mouth with painted teeth, leather ears, and woven tail is a link to a remarkable story of a young immigrant coming to the United States and creating an empire.

[caption id="attachment_14215" align="alignright" width="199"]The Women's Home Companion carried Shoenhut's advertisement for the Humpty Dumpty Circus Set just in time for Christmas 1913. (Women's Home Companion via Google Books) The Women's Home Companion carried Schoenhut's advertisement for the Humpty Dumpty Circus Toys just in time for Christmas 1913. (Women's Home Companion via Google Books)[/caption]

Born in 1848, Albert Schoenhut came from a toy-making family in Wurtenberg, Germany. He was invited to come to Philadelphia in 1866 to repair toy pianos for the John Wanamaker department store. By 1872 he started his own toy piano company. This small company expanded to make other musical instruments, wooden “character” dolls, circus figures, doll houses and doll furniture, push and pull toys, and a wide variety of other toys. The Schoenhut factory grew from a small building on Frankford Avenue to larger quarters at Sixth and Adams Streets. By 1907 the factory expanded to five stories at Adams and Sepviva Streets, eventually enclosing five and a half acres of floor space. The factory employed 400 workers. Before World War I, the period in which Philadelphia developed its reputation as the “Workshop of the World,” the Schoenhut toy company was the largest toy company in the United States.

One of Schoenhut’s most popular toys was the Humpty Dumpty Circus set, sold from 1903 until 1935, when the company declared bankruptcy. Schoenhut used his genius for creating new toys to capture the interest of the buying public. The hand-painted circus toys connected to everyone’s love of the American circus with acrobats, clowns and preforming animals.

The early animals had glass eyes and real hair for manes or tails. Performers had real hair and decorated costumes. The Ringmaster was the more elaborate of the performers; he wore a black top hat and clothing very much like an English fox hunting costume. The early elephant was one of the most decorative circus animals with painted leather tusks and ears. It wore a colorful howdahs blanket edged in metallic braid. All the animals and figures were jointed strung together with elastic bands, allowing them to be placed in a variety of positions only limited by imagination. The animals and performers could hold poses, stand on balancing ladders, and do a wide variety of "tricks" following the poses found in Schoenhut catalogs.

Schoenhut sold the circus figures and accessories individually, in small boxed sets, or in large sets. The accessories could include performers, circus tents, circus wagons, and a wide range of animals. A child could receive a starter set and through continued gifts eventually own a complete circus of thirty-seven animals, ten performers (plus a band, which was an extra set), accessories and a circus tent. The toys provided hours of fun and had a whimsical charm that invited anyone to play.

Text by Susan Drinan, who retired in 2015 as registrar of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent.

Artifact: “Free Labor” Pinafore

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Pinafore, c. 1845, labeled “free cotton” to assure that the item was not produced by slave labor. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, Friends Historical Association Collection, 1987, Photograph by Sara Hawken)

[caption id="attachment_14200" align="alignright" width="233"]In this children's book illustration from the 1850s, the girl on the right is wearing a pinafore like the one pictured above. (From The Naughty Girl Won; or, The Story of Kitty Willis, Sunday School Union, courtesy of Philadelphia History Museum) In this children's book illustration from the 1850s, the girl on the right is wearing a pinafore like the one pictured above. (From The Naughty Girl Won; or, The Story of Kitty Willis, Sunday School Union, courtesy of Philadelphia History Museum)[/caption]

There are several ways of looking at the image of this little pinafore, a garment meant to be worn over a child’s dress. Made around 1845, it is an object related to the free-labor movement prior to the Civil War, an article of clothing that may have been made by someone for an abolition fair, and perhaps a connection to the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society.

The pinafore, hand-stitched with pleated edging around each armhole, has the original price tag of 12 cents still attached to the front. Turn the object to the back to find a clue to the pinafore’s significance for its maker and purchaser: an original paper tag that says “free labour cotton.” This meant that it had been made without the use of slave labor, part of an anti-slavery boycott movement that originated in England and spread to the United States in the 1820s. The movement came to Philadelphia in 1827 when Thomas M’Clintock (1792-1876) and others founded the Free Produce Society. In theory the idea of boycotting goods and selling only ‘free’ produce and goods was an excellent weapon against slave holders. In reality the cost of the non-slave goods, whether cotton or candy, was very high and many citizens did not feel the need to protest the use of slave-made goods.

This pinafore came to the Philadelphia History Museum in 1987 from the Friends Historical Association, which received it from local Quaker family. It is believed to have been made for or purchased at an abolition fair, a type of event organized by women to raise money to produce anti-slavery materials and to help free African Americans. A close look at the stitching and style of the pinafore suggests that it may have been made by someone not very knowledgeable about sewing. The stitches are uneven and one pleated sleeve edging was put in backwards. It is very small pinafore and may have been made as a sample. Most girls were taught to sew plain seams at the age of five or six and then gradually to learn to sew clothing. Stitching this small pinafore could have been within the scope of a child.

[caption id="attachment_14199" align="alignright" width="300"]Philadelphia merchant George Taylor advertised free labor goods for sale with this trade card, c. 1864. (Library Company of Philadelphia) Philadelphia merchant George Taylor advertised free labor goods for sale with this trade card, c. 1864. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Among the organizations involved in local abolition fairs was the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (PFASS), Philadelphia’s first integrated abolitionist organization, founded in December 1833. The group’s primary fundraiser was an annual fair where handcrafted items such as needlework with abolitionist inscriptions, free labor goods, and anti-slavery materials were sold.

Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), a Philadelphia Quaker, was one of the founder of PFASS and a vocal critic of slavery. Other members included Charlotte Forten (1785-1884), wife of prominent African American James Forten (1766-1842), and her three daughters. After working for the cause of ending slavery in the United States the society disbanded in 1870 after passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. Margaretta Forten (1806-75) proposed this resolution: “Whereas, the object for which this Association was organized is thus accomplished, therefore resolved, that the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society, grateful for the part allotted to it in this great work, rejoicing in the victory which has concluded the long conflict between slavery and Freedom in America, does hereby disband.”  

Developing the society as a functioning fund-raiser changed the way these women thought about their lives at a time when women were expected to lead quiet, domestic lives. They learned to speak out in public view, explain ideals to strangers, handle money, and work within a group to form plans and carry them through to fruition. These new ways of thinking and doing carried them on toward activism for women’s rights and suffrage.

Text by Susan Drinan, who retired in 2015 as registrar of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent.

Click on the waistband of the pinafore to learn more about abolition and slavery in Philadelphia.

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