The Gunn Historical Museum, Washington, Connecticut
By Mark B. Oliver | January 13, 2011
Christmas is a time of wonder and excitement for children and the latest exhibit at the Gunn Historical Museum evokes those memories in an inspired way.
It has become a tradition at the museum to present a holiday themed exhibition each December. The last few years have seen such exhibits as dolls, toy fire trucks and last year, Christmas Through the Ages. It was this exhibit that gave Stephen Bartkus, the museum’s curator, the idea for this year’s Washington’s Winter Wonderland exhibition.
“Last year we had scenes from a Victorian Christmas, Christmas in the 1930s and Christmas in the 1950s. Local resident Sandy Booth lent us some of her Steiff toys for the 1950s exhibit and they proved such a hit with visitors of all ages, that this year we decided to showcase her entire collection.”
While Steiff may not be a household name in New England, this German company changed the toy industry forever over 100 years ago with one extraordinary invention; the teddy bear.
The company was founded in 1880 by Margarete Steiff, a seamstress who was only able to sew with one hand having contacting polio earlier in her life. In 1902, Richard Steiff, a nephew of Margarete and a gifted artist-inventor himself, presented the idea of a teddy bear to Margarete. She was unenthusiastic at first, but Richard persisted and to the delight of children ever since, the first teddy bear was sold soon after.
All of Steiff’s plush toys are distinguished by their “Button in Ear” trademark which was introduced by Franz Steiff, another of Margarete’s nephews, in 1904. The company has gone on to become the oldest manufacturer of soft toys in the world and remains highly successful to this day.
Sandy Booth began collecting Steiff animals in the early 1990s when she was drawn to their beautiful craftsmanship and variety of characters. Sandy is a lifelong resident of Bethlehem.
Several other friends of the museum donated Steiff toys for display such as Shelley Smith, Dora Ehmer, Doreen Werling and Franklin Nichols.
The museum is in a relatively small house on Washington Green. The designers of the exhibit have turned this to a distinct advantage by making the individual rooms feel ‘homey’ which adds to the charm of the collection.
Murals have been painted on the museum’s walls by John Pitts. These are evocative of murals found in nurseries and their brilliance is in their simplicity. It is easy to see why Pitts had a distinguished career as a scenic artist and theatrical set designer before he retired locally.
The Steiff toys are grouped together into logical collections and many appear against painted backgrounds such as the collection of toys in a jungle setting.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a collection of Steiff toys around a Christmas tree decorated with Kugel (pronounced “koo-gull”) ornaments. Kugels are German in origin and were made as early as 1820 and were sold as decorations to be hung from the windows or ceilings of homes, perhaps to ward off evil spirits. In 1848 they were sold for the first time as holiday ornaments.
Although Kugel means “ball”, they were made in other shapes such as grape clusters, berry clusters, pear, egg and ribbed balls. They are colored in shades of silver, gold, green, red, blue, bronze and amethyst. Heavier than modern-day decorations, Kugels have to be affixed to a tree with wire.
The Kugel decorated tree surrounded by Steiff toys (see main photo) is set against a red background which makes the exhibit ‘pop’ and there is much to be seen in this one room alone.
The exhibition also features beautiful Christmas trees decorated by local designers Chris Zaima and Anne Chapin. One tree which may appeal to young girls is decorated with Barbie dolls.
This enchanting exhibit has been extended due to its overwhelming popularity and will now run through Sunday January 30, 2011 and is highly recommended for children and adults alike.
Additionally, on Saturday January 22, 2011, the Gunn Historical Museum will host a Steiff appraisal day for members of the public. Please contact the museum for further information.
The Gunn Historical Museum
5 Wykeham Road, Washington, CT 06793
The Gunn Historical Museum Website.
Thu - Sat: 10AM - 4PM
Sun: 12PM - 4PM
Entry to the museum is free but donations are of course welcome.