German immigrant Albert Schoenhut not only lived the American dream, but he made childhood much more fun for generations of children in his adopted homeland.
Born into a family of toymakers, Schoenhut’s lot in life emerged early on. Even as a child, Albert was already picking up the skills to make toy pianos in the family home located in Göppingen, Germany. As a third-generation toymaker, Schoenhut learned the craft of making wooden dolls, circus figures, complete playsets and games from his father and grandfather. At the age of 17, he had narrowed his focus to toy pianos. His talent resulted in a job offer from America and Schoenhut’s solo immigration to Philadelphia, where he worked for Wanamaker’s department store. His work consisted of repairing German toy pianos imported to the United States, beginning in the 1860s.
History Highlight: Composer John Cage put Schoenhut Toy Co.’s toy pianos in the spotlight on the concert stage in 1948 with his Suite for Toy Piano. Enjoy a performance of this special composition:
In 1897, Schoenhut went off on his own, forming A. Schoenhut Company, Manufacturer of Toys and Novelties. He wasn’t alone. It’s reported in the 1900 Census that at least 500 toy manufacturers were operating within the United States. As the 20th century got under way, Albert Schoenhut’s $100 acquisition of a toy clown patent set the course for what would become one of his company’s most prolific toy lines. Schoenhut’s Humpty Dumpty Circus, with its various jointed animal and clown figures, and other circus accessories, opened the door to playset popularity.
History Highlight: The German community where the Schoenhut family of toymakers produced playthings was no stranger to timeless toy production, as toymaking firm Märklin also operated in Göppingen, Germany.
The Humpty Dumpty Circus was a hit with children, parents and teachers alike. The ability to create scenes inspired by the real-life big-top circuses of the day captured the attention of all ages. The retail availability of various figures, which could be purchased individually, created an affordable way for parents to provide their children with toys for creative play.
The Humpty Dumpty Circus toy line was in production from 1903 through 1935. Various museums include or have featured displays/figures of Humpty Dumpty Circus playsets in exhibitions, including:
• The Strong National Museum of Play www.museumofplay.org
• NC Museum of Dolls, Toys & Miniatures www.spencerdollandtoymuseum.com
• New-York Historical Society Museum & Library www.nyhistory.org
• Philadelphia History Museum www.philadelphiahistory.org
Tip: The Schoenhut Collectors Club is an active organization supporting the practice of collecting, preserving, and researching toys, dolls, and games created by the A. Schoenhut Co., and successor companies. The club hosts an annual fall convention. http://www.schoenhutcollectorsclub.org
Another evolution of the A. Schoenhut Company’s toy production was the “All Wood Perfection Art Doll.” The first model, marketed in 1911, featured steel spring hinges for joints and a basswood head designed by a revered Italian sculptor of the day. The Wood Perfection Art Doll became a top seller during the 1910s, even with the impact of World War I. Before his death in 1912, Albert Schoenhut saw his company progress into various new avenues of toy production and reach its 40th anniversary.
However, the company succumbed to the same fate as many other American businesses impacted by the Great Depression. In 1934, the company entered bankruptcy. Although many of the company’s buildings were sold during liquidating auctions, a few did not sell. In 1935, Albert Schoenhut’s youngest son and one of his grandsons formed the O. Schoenhut Company (after the son, Otto). The company produced Pinn Family Dolls in Philadelphia until the 1970s. In 1984 the company was purchased by Frank Trinca. This iteration of the Schoenhut company was also a family operation, and taking it full circle, brothers Frank and Len Trinca shifted the focus right back to where it began: toy pianos. Now doing business as the Schoenhut Piano Company, the company is revered for the quality of musical instruments it produces.
As they say, everything old is new again.