Toys that shuffle, tap or dance a jig
NEW YORK — Toys or dolls that are sometimes known as “jiggers” have free-swinging limbs that render the appearance of shuffling or dancing. Starting with a simple figure on a wooden or tin-plate platform, these antique toys evolved into more complex playthings that employed clockwork or wind-up mechanisms.
Jig-dancing toys incorporate many types of figures, including popular Disney cartoon characters such as Popeye, Goofy and Donald Duck. A 1920s wooden platform Felix toy, touted on its box as “Pat Sullivan’s Movie Cat,” has a wooden slide handle that can be moved up and down, thus causing Felix to “run” in place. It sold for $1,800 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020 at Bertoia Auctions.
These wiggly toys sometimes feature pairs of figures rather than a single one. A Dutch dancing boy and girl, one of several versions made by renowned Philadelphia toy maker Schoenhut for its Jolly Jiggers toy, had a platform that could be pressed up and down to make the figures “dance.” A circa-1903 example achieved $1,100 plus the buyer’s premium at a March 2018 auction conducted by Pook & Pook with Noel Barrett. Besides Schoenhut, several other American toy makers produced jig-dancing toys, including Marx, Strauss and the Buffalo Toy and Tool Works.
For centuries, toys have mirrored societal values and attitudes, some of which are considered abhorrent today. Between the late 1800s and the early 1900s, several manufacturers produced toys that were racist caricatures of people, especially African Americans. Jig dolls and toys were, sadly, no exception. Although modern audiences find such toys extremely offensive, those who collect them say they view the toys within a historical context and that the unenlightened times they represent should not be forgotten or swept under the rug. While African American toys that move and dance were common productions from the late 19th through mid-20th centuries, manufacturers also produced dancers that stereotyped Asians, the Irish and other marginalized groups. A circa-1880s clockwork toy that pictured a dancing Irish woman brought $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021 at RSL Auction Co.
Jig toys were favorite subjects for holiday themes, which makes them appealing to holiday memorabilia collectors as well as toy enthusiasts. Halloween is second only to Christmas in terms of the amount and the diversity of dancing toys. Unsurprisingly, skeletons are a natural motif for Halloween-themed jig dolls. A circa-1890s Ives, Blakeslee & Co.,“McGinty” skeleton realized $3,250 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021 at Bertoia Auctions. A rare form today with few known surviving examples, this 11-inch toy has feet that tap while its head and joints shake.
Toy companies often shared or recycled a toy mold, issuing products that were slight variations on previous releases. In the mid-19th century, he Connecticut toy maker Ives, Blakeslee & Company created a dancing-clown clockwork toy that came in several versions. It was designed to be suspended from a chain so it could perform on a flat surface. An example of the clown was offered in August 2021 by RSL Auction Co., whose catalog described it as “one of the most fascinating mechanical novelties ever devised.” It sold for $2,300 plus the buyer’s premium.
Early and primitive-style jiggers also appeal to folk art collectors. The heyday of these particular toys spanned the late 1880s to the early 1910s, but they continued to be made well into the 1950s. Made circa 1945, a mechanical wind-up toy known as Li’l Abner and His Dogpatch Band was made by the Unique Art Manufacturing Co., and was inspired by Al Capp’s satirical 20th-century comic strip L’il Abner. By virtue of its action, it fits the technical definition of a jig-dancing toy. When set into motion with a built-in wind-up key, L’il Abner dances vigorously as Daisy Mae plays the piano, Pappy Yokum beats the drum and Mammy sways atop the piano. A nice example of this toy with colorful lithography realized $650 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2016 at Rich Penn Auctions.
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