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Felix the Cat: A century of smiles in comics, toys

NEW YORK – Felix the Cat is not only a pop culture icon but he was television’s first star. Today, with thousands of toys and comic books bearing his likeness, often depicting his famous walk, he remains a hot collectible. Head down, lost in thought, walking with his hands behind his back, the plucky Felix stole the scene in hundreds of movies and comic strips.

Back in 1919, Felix got his start in a New York City animation studio with a Felix prototype named Master Tom, making his film debut in the short, Feline Follies. By his third movie released later that year, he took on a new name, Felix the Cat, which would soon become famous.

Among highly desirable and rare Felix the Cat toys is this large windup Frolic platform toy by J. Chein, one of four known, that achieved $35,000 + buyer’s premium in September 2017. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The name reportedly comes from the Latin word for happy (felix) and is similar to the cat term, feline. Both New Jersey cartoonist/animator Otto Messmer and Australian cartoonist/filmmaker Pat Sullivan (whose name appears in the credits for Feline Follies) have both claimed credit for Felix’s creation.

In 1928, Felix became a TV star when NBC/RCA was testing television transmissions and chose a Felix the Cat figure to use as it could sustain the heat of the TV lights and the contrast of its black and white coloring would reproduce well. By this time, Felix was already a household name as a Felix the Cat comic strip was syndicated, first in England and then in America, in 1923. He was so popular that his likeness appeared on U.S. Navy fighter planes during World War II, chosen as a mascot of sorts for his “never give up” attitude.

A Felix the Cat litho tin windup scooter in original box, made by J. Chein, earned $2,500 + buyer’s premium in May 2015. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Felix’s look is striking in its simplistic elegance. His jet-black body stands in sharp contrast against the whitest whites of his eyes and his figure is basically composed of circles (from his eyes to his nose and head), which likely made it easy for different animators to draw him without much stylistic differences.

Felix was first syndicated as a comic strip in England and was beloved there, where many Felix collectibles and dolls were made. “In that country, a popular song was composed called Felix Kept On Walking,” according to this website surveying the Mel Birnkrant collection. On the cover of the sheet music, one can see Felix in his classic pensive walking pose and the song title served as a catchphrase for Felix.

This freestanding Steiff Felix the Cat toy, retaining its original Steiff ear button, went for $4,000 + buyer’s premium in March 2019. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

A Felix the Cat fandom website notes the surrealism of the cartoon strips and the versatility of Felix’s tail. “Felix’s expressive tail, which could be a shovel one moment, an exclamation mark or pencil the next, serves to emphasize that anything can happen in his world,” it wrote. The comic strips were popular for a few decades and then gave way to TV cartoons, which ran for over 20 years.

Felix the Cat has appeared on thousands upon thousands of collectibles and items, including

animated clocks, flashlights, salt and pepper shakers, lamps, dishes, music boxes, cookie jars and much more. Toys, of course, are his predominant medium and range from dolls and wooden or stuffed figures to wooden pull toys, platform and balance toys, nodders and vehicle toys.

A Daven ‘Home Brew’ scanning disk television with a 13-inch-tall Felix the Cat composition doll sold for $3,000 + buyer’s premium in August 2018. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Companies such as Schoenhut, Steiff and J. Chein & Co. were among those licensed to produce toys and figures of Felix and other King Features Syndicate characters.

Among top-selling Felix the Cat collectibles and Felix-inspired items are a stencils and spray paint on canvas artwork by the artist known as Seen (b. 1961) painted in 2012 that realized $70,000 in February 2014 at Fine Art Auctions Miami and a large Felix the Cat Felix Frolic platform lithographed tin toy that achieved $35,000 in September 2017 at Morphy Auctions.

For the cartoon ‘Felix Brings Home the Bacon,’ released in July 1924, original four-fold lithograph poster on linen backing, 27 x 41 inches. Price realized: $2,600 + buyer’s premium. Photo courtesy of Soulis Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

This oversized toy measured nearly 14 inches and consequently, it broke easily and was probably in production for only one year because of this issue. Wooden flex dolls from the 1930s, having leather ears and marked Felix on the chest, standing around 4 inches or 8 inches tall, are quite collectible and affordable, selling for about $300 to $600. Steiff Felix dolls with the ear button are also desirable.

Armed with a memorable theme song and his bag of tricks, Felix has endeared himself to fans across the years, becoming a pop culture icon and sought-after collectable in the process.

Cool! Your ’70s playroom comes to life with toys, posters in Sept. 11 auction

Between the peace-and-love Woodstock decade and the era of Atari, Apple and Star Wars that followed, America had the real-life version of That Seventies Show going on. If you remember tie-dye shirts, Starsky & Hutch, or any car with a vinyl top, you were there. If not, you can relive the colorful 1970s with a playroom decked out with posters, toys and other fun collectibles available in Jasper52’s Sept. 11 online-only auction.

Genuine, original 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark poster, Paramount Studios/LucasFilm Ltd. Est. $1,000-$2,800

View the auction.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Schoenhut: From Tiny Pianos To Legendary Toys

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.

Lot featuring all three sizes of jointed-wood Felix the Cat dolls manufactured by Schoenhut, auctioned for $850 in October 2009. LiveAuctioneers and Dan Morphy Auctions image

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.

Schoenhut Humpty Dumpty Circus playset from the turn of the 20th century, featuring a circus tent, circus ring, original flags, 12 figures: dancer, clowns, animal trainers; and 18 animal figures, sold for 8,000 Euro ($9,425). Provenance: Rothenburg Doll and Toy Museum, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

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

Rare, circa 1906 painted-wood toy boat, Schoenhut Co., with cardboard cloth covered canopy and composition figures seated in the bow, keywind mechanism, accompanied by original box, entered in Bertoia’s Nov. 11, 2017 auction. LiveAuctioneers and Bertoia Auctions image

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.

Dip into a Seasoned Collector’s Toy Box

There are few collector categories that can rival the global appeal of antique and vintage toys. Ask any toy enthusiast and they’ll tell you the “toy bug” plays no favorites. No matter where you grew up or what your age may be, you’re sure to recall with fondness your own favorite childhood toys, and that’s often what leads to an exploration and appreciation of toys of an even earlier era. Many in the know say the smart way to start a collection is via the auction route. Nothing can beat buying from a collection that has already been upgraded and refined, like the one offered in this week’s Vintage Toy sale.

A gem of a collection, the 79-lot assemblage features early European tin wind-ups, including automotive; comic character toys, Japanese vehicles with colorful original boxes, banks, clowns, and German toys by Lehmann, Gunthermann, and other manufacturers.

There are some surprising rarities in the sale, like this 1901 Fernand Martin “Le Pianiste” (Piano Player). When wound up, the cloth-dressed musician appears to play the piano, his hands moving across the keys as he sways back and forth. The market for French-made Martin toys has never been stronger. This particular toy is expected to make $3,250-$4,000.

Vintage Fernand Martin French Mechanical Automaton, Estimate: $3,250-$4,000. Jasper52 image

 

Any serious European toy enthusiast would want at least a couple of Gunthermann toys in their collection. This auction offers several possibilities. A hand-painted 1910 Man Playing Cello has been professionally restored and is cataloged with a $1,000-$1,500 estimate.

Vintage Restored 1910 Guentherman Musical Cello Player, estimate: $1,100-$1,500. Jasper52 image

 

Other Gunthermann productions include a Little Boy Twirling Two Celluloid Balls, estimate $650-$800, and a Galloping Horse with Rider, $400-$500.

Vintage Wind-up Gunthermann Little Boy Twirling 2 Balls, Estimate $650-$800. Jasper52 image

 

When it comes to antique and vintage German cars, demand is always greater than the available supply. Lot 32, a handsome Lehmann ivory with red, lithographed tin LUXUS limousine with driver is in perfect working order and complete condition, even retaining its original battery-operated headlight bulbs. This 13-inch beauty is not often seen in the marketplace. The example offered here is estimated at $7,150-$8,800.

Prewar Germany Wind-up LEHMANN EPL 785 ‘Luxus’ Limo, Estimate: $7,150-$8,800. Jasper52 image

 

Lot 30, a vintage Fischer tinplate wind-up 4-door sedan finished in green and black is expected to make $500-$600.

Vintage FISCHER Tinplate Windup 4-Door Sedan Car, Estimate: $500-$600. Jasper52 image

 

Boxed construction toys include a 1950s Tru-Mix cement mixer truck, a postwar (ATC) Japanese tin Ford F-800 dump truck; a Momoya tin friction dump truck, and several tractors by desirable Japanese manufacturers.

Vintage ASAHI (ATC) Japan Tin Ford F-800 Dump Truck, Estimate: $300-$400. Jasper52 image

 

A treasure of the early comic character era, Lot 35 is a 1932 Chein production of wood and tin depicting Ignatz Mouse, the precursor to Mickey Mouse. The playful rodent retains its original King Features Syndicate Chein & Co decal and original leather ears. A bright, colorful charmer, the toy is entered with a $2,860-$3,520 estimate.

It has been well documented that Ernst Paul Lehmann, creator of the ingenious tin toys bearing his name, took his inspiration from things he saw in his own German village or during his travels. The latter seems to have been the case in his design known as Dare Devil, Lot 26. The toy depicts a man seated in a cart pulled by a zebra, something Lehmann is said to have witnessed while visiting Africa. The lithographed tin Dare Devil in this sale is in excellent, all-original condition and carries an $850-$1,040 estimate.

Vintage Lehmann (Germany) Tin Lithographed Windup EPL 752 Dare Devil Man on Zebra Carriage Cart, Estimate: $850-$1,040. Jasper52 image

Click to view the fully illustrated auction catalog for this weekend’s Vintage Toys Auction.

Attention Star Wars Fans: You Could Own Your Very Own Jedi Lightsaber

This is not a drill. An epic collection of Star Wars toys is featured in this week’s Jasper52 sale. The Force is strong throughout this entire collection, but we’re going to highlight a few of the standouts. Perhaps you’ll have a few extra presents under your Christmas tree this year.

An authentic Anakin Skywalker Jedi Lightsaber signed by Star Wars creator and director George Lucas is a highly coveted item in the auction. The seller won the lightsaber in a 2002 contest sponsored by British grocery and general merchandise retailer Tesco, and provided documentation from Industrial Light and Magic confirming its authenticity. The lightsaber comes in a clear display case. It is estimated at $6,000-$8,000.

George Lucas-signed Anakin Skywalker Jedi Lightsaber, numbered 1 of 1. Estimate: $6,000-$8,000.

George Lucas-signed Anakin Skywalker Jedi Lightsaber, numbered 1 of 1. Estimate: $6,000-$8,000.

Imagine waking up to the voice of Princess Leia or Luke Skywalker. It is possible with a Star Wars talking alarm clock by Bradley Time. The clock, which has a $200-$300 estimate, is in mint condition in the original box.

Star Wars talking alarm clock by Bradley Time, mint in the box with instructions. Estimate: $200-$300

Star Wars talking alarm clock by Bradley Time, mint in the box with instructions. Estimate: $200-$300

Relive the Star Wars story in 112 slides with Kenner’s famous Give-A-Show projector, which was re-tooled for the Star Wars franchise. The boxed toy with the slides has a $300-$400 estimate.

Star Wars Give-A-Show Projector, Kenner, Star Wars saga in 112 color slides. Estimate: $300-$400

Star Wars Give-A-Show Projector, Kenner, Star Wars saga in 112 color slides. Estimate: $300-$400

The Star Wars Empire Strikes Back Rebel Transport Vehicle is a rare model from the series’ second installment. This toy in its original box carries a $1,300-$1,500 estimate.

Star Wars Empire Strikes Back Rebel Transport Vehicle, factory sealed in mint condition. Estimate: $1,300-$1,500

Star Wars Empire Strikes Back Rebel Transport Vehicle, factory sealed in mint condition. Estimate: $1,300-$1,500

And we know you’re not too old to play with dolls. Another rarity in this auction is a Star Wars Early Bird action figures set from 1978. Still sealed in original clear plastic bags, these figures are expected to forge their way to $40,000-$45,000.

Rare Star Wars Early Bird action figure set, 1978. Estimate: $40,000-$45,000

Rare Star Wars Early Bird action figure set, 1978. Estimate: $40,000-$45,000

Interested in all of these and more? The auction contains dozens of Star Wars boxed toys and action figures, many in the original boxes. Find your favorites here and register to bid.

5 influential American toy companies of the 19th century

In the early 1800s, most American children played with homemade toys. That started to change with the arrival of the industrial revolution and the application of American ingenuity toward playthings.

Names like Marx, Tonka, Mattel and Hasbro, which are familiar to baby boomers and subsequent generations, didn’t emerge until the 20th century. To explore the American toy industry’s beginnings, one has to go back in time to before the Civil War, when pioneering toy manufacturers staked their claim on a still-developing sector.

Here are five companies that were on the ground floor of American toy production:

Francis, Field & Francis Omnibus. Sold for $56,000. Image via LiveAuctioneers

Francis, Field & Francis Omnibus. Sold for $56,000. Image via LiveAuctioneers

Francis, Field & Francis

The first toy manufacturer of record was based in Philadelphia. Known as Francis, Field & Francis, a.k.a Philadelphia Tin Toy Manufactory, this business was in operation as early as 1838. Francis, Field & Francis produced the first manufactured American toy, a horse-drawn fire apparatus. The company claimed their japanned (lacquered) tin toys were “superior to any imported.”

George W. Brown & Co.

By the mid-19th century, New England was the hotbed of toy making. George W. Brown of Forestville, Conn., apprenticed as a clock maker before co-founding George W. Brown & Co., to manufacture toys. Brown applied his knowledge of clocks in designing the first American clockwork tin toys, including a train that the company marketed in 1856. His company also produced many animal-drawn conveyances, platform toys, wagons, fire engines, ships and trains.

The District School figurine set made by Crandall's, 1876. Sold for $2,200. Image via LiveAuctioneers.

The District School figurine set made by Crandall’s, 1876. Sold for $2,200. Image via LiveAuctioneers.

Crandall Toys

Charles M. Crandall of Montrose, Pennsylvania, whose father and brothers were also toy makers, had his greatest success manufacturing building block sets. His sets patented in 1867 featured a tongue-and-groove arrangement that held the pieces together. Crandall introduced lithographed paper-on-wood building block sets in the 1870s. It was said that by the end of the 19th century, Crandall’s building block sets were seen in almost every civilized nation.

J. & E. Stevens Co.

J. & E. Stevens Co. of Cromwell, Connecticut, is credited as the first American company to produce cast-iron toys. John & Elisha Stevens started out making hardware but switched to simple toys like sadirons, garden tools and, later, pistols. J. & E. Stevens supplied cast-iron wheels to numerous toy makers. They are best known as prolific manufacturers of cast-iron mechanical banks in the late 1800s.

Ives & Co Cutter Sleigh, 1893. Sold for $190,000. Image via LiveAuctioneers

Ives & Co Cutter Sleigh, 1893. Sold for $190,000. Image via LiveAuctioneers

Ives & Co.

Of the many toy makers to emerge after the Civil War, the undisputed leader was Ives & Co. Edward Ives joined his father, Riley, around 1860. They moved their company from New York City to Bridgeport, Connecticut, a clock-making center, to facilitate their transition to manufacturing clockwork toys. The first were No. 1 Boy on Velocipede and No. 2 Single Oarsman, which replicated a man rowing a boat. Within a few years, Ives & Co. was producing about 20 high-quality clockwork tin toys. Ives set the pace with the trend toward cast iron in the 1870s, making the first mechanical bell toys on wheels. By the 1880s, Ives, Blakeslee & Co. was exporting toys to Europe and South America. In 1890, Harry Ives joined his father, Edward, in the business and continued manufacturing popular toys and trains well into the 20th century.

To view and bid on antique American toys, head to Jasper52 to check out this weeks’ curated toy auctions.

Information sourced from The Story of American Toys by Richard O’Brien (Abbeville Press, 1990)