Children’s Toy and Doll Museum to open for season

Photo by Michael Kelly Teresa Spencer demonstrates the way a wind-up toy at the Children’s Toy and Doll Museum on Gilman Avenue. The museum will hold its season opening Saturday and Sunday, and a large collection of wind-up toys is one of its new exhibits this year.

MARIETTA — For the curators of the Children’s Toy and Doll Museum, and its fans and followers, toys and dolls are much more than child’s play.

They are representations of culture, past and present.

“Toys are history,” said museum volunteer and collector Teresa Spencer. “They have been found in the tombs of pharoahs, they mirror adult and human activities.”

The museum is preparing to open for the season, and Spencer was walking the old building on Gilman Street, a restored century-old house in the middle of the Harmar historic district, making sure everything was in order.

The museum generally offers new exhibits each year along with its established collections, such as Old West toys, shelves of toy cars and other vehicles, rare dolls and thematic displays. This year, Spencer’s collection of dozens of wind-up toys will be showcased.

Photo by Michael Kelly Wind-up toys from around the world dating back to the late 1920s line a display shelf at the Children’s Toy and Doll Museum on Gilman Avenue.

The toys range in origin from several countries, including German and Japan, and in age from the late 1920s to the 1970s. Most are made of metal, although some have celluloid features and others include cloth and textile material.

Winding up a sabre tooth tiger covered with spotted cloth, she set it on the hardwood floor in front of the display case. The tiger began to sidle along, stopping and emitting mechanical growls.

“It drives my cat nuts,” she said.

The collection is a menagerie of odd and interesting creations, including a dog that polishes its eyeglasses while wagging its tail, a cat that chases a butterfly, a strutting penguin and a dog that throws and catches a small ball bearing — “candy” –in its mouth. The bigger items include a foot-tall Ferris wheel.

“I’m fascinated with these, I guess I’m just an old kid,” Spencer said.

Photo by Michael Kelly A new collection of bisque and china dolls is on display at the Children's Toy and Doll Museum on Gilman Avenue. The museum opens for the season this weekend.

Wind-up toys are icons of mechanical precision, and their origins go back hundreds of years. After the invention of the mechanical clock, one of the first things the craftsmen turned their attention to was toys, some of the first of them created in the 15th century. Da Vinci, Spencer said, crafted a wind-up lion for one of his patrons, Louis XII of Italy.

The mechanism in a wind-up toy resembles a clock, with a key being used to tighten a spring inside the toy. The gradually released energy of the spring drives the action of the toy.

Spencer said the interest that drove her collection was tracing the provenance of the toys, which she often found in less than pristine condition, sometimes at yard sales or antique shops, others came from online vendors. Repairing them is an art practiced by only a few collectors, she said.

Manufacturers of the toys, which included Marx, Wyandotte, Wolverine, Unique Art and Chein in the U.S. and Schuco, Distler, Arnold, Lehmann and Tippco in Germany, along with several in Japan, had production houses all over the country and were continually striving to design new toys to meet the demand, which only tapered off when electronically powered toys took over the market in the 1960s and 1970s.

Another new exhibit at the museum is an array of bisque and china dolls donated by Gary Thompson of Parkersburg, following the wishes of his mother, Elanor Thompson. A group of the dolls stands atop a mantle in one of the ground floor rooms, a line of prim faces in formal wear offset by a stylish and assured woman in a croquet outfit by herself at the end.

Indicating the miniature detail of the clothing on the dolls, Spencer said, “This is amazing seamstress work.”

Other popular exhibits at the museum remain this year, including Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls, the Shirley Temple doll collection and the Johnny West Complete Collectors Series.

Museum volunteer director Diane Pfile said preparations for opening the museum usually start in February. Improvements over the past year include new window shades and some replaced windows. The museum is now on a fundraising drive to replace the roof of the building, having raised about $8,940 of the $23,325 needed for the work.

“We’re a nonprofit and we rely on donations, grants, memberships and yard sales,” she said. “We’re all volunteers here.”

The museum is open from 1to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays from the beginning of May through October. It also offers special tours for groups.