About Me

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No Fixed Abode, Home Counties, United Kingdom
I’m a 51-year-old Aspergic CAD-Monkey. Sardonic, cynical and with the political leanings of a social reformer, I’m also a toy and model figure collector, particularly interested in the history of plastics and plastic toys. Other interests are history, current affairs, modern art, and architecture, gardening and natural history. I love plain chocolate, fireworks and trees but I don’t hug them, I do hug kittens. I hate ignorance, when it can be avoided, so I hate the 'educational' establishment and pity the millions they’ve failed with teaching-to-test and rote 'learning' and I hate the short-sighted stupidity of the entire ruling/industrial elite, with their planet destroying fascism and added “buy-one-get-one-free”. I also have no time for fools and little time for the false crap we're all supposed to pretend we haven't noticed, or the games we're supposed to play.

Friday, May 27, 2011

E is for Erzgebirge...

…or is it? Before we look at the post (which I think I said I’d do in a week or two about a year ago!) let’s look at this increasingly used term for all things wooden and toy-like, and/or vaguely European and/or all things vaguely 19th or early 20th Century made of wood.

One friend of mine uses it all the time, but in his defense he does tend to stock a lot of early European wooden toy soldiers or farm and zoo animals, indeed I think I picked it up from him as a collective noun.

Yet, while you will find it in Penny Toys (1991) by Pressland and other more recent works, you won’t find it mentioned in any of the 1970/1980’s Toy Soldier works by Garratt, Harris, Rose or Ruddle, you won’t find it in early books by Joplin or Opie either. In Garratt’s encyclopedia, there is no use or mention of the word in either of the longer entries under ‘Wood’ or ‘Germany’, and it is using those words in conjunction with indexes that has failed to produce a use before Pressland’s work in several dozen books over this past weekend.

The Toy Collector by Louis H. Hertz (1969 & 1976) talks of the Germans trying to rename the collective oeuvre of wooden toy production “Bavarian Guilders Toys” in the 1860’s and 1870’s, and elsewhere in the book he looks at the subject of the mass production methods without using Erzgebirge once. Note; I find the work quite anti-German, overly pro-American and pompous to the point where it should have been titled ‘The Very Rich, Very-Early-American-Toy Collector ONLY’, and while it is an academic work full of useful stuff, if you’re anything like me you’ll get so angry reading it you’re better served reading one of O’Brien’s more modern guides to US toys.
So, if by now you’re interest is up and you’ve got internet there, try Google’ing either ‘Etymology of the word Erzgebirge’ or ‘First use of the word Erzgebirge’…did you get more than four results? None of which were much use at all? If you did you may know more than me, as I might have missed a few pages through the Library service’s filters! The word is pronounced ertz-ge-beer-ga for those not familiar with German pronunciation!

The point I’m making is that this word seems to have been re-invented or become attached to wooden toys - in general - in the late 1980’s at the earliest, having been taken from the ‘true’ antiques trade (where it pertains to larger 'household' items in the main), and is hopelessly inaccurate for the task allotted it, taking - as it does - the name for a range of hills (the Ore Mountains) in the eastern elbow of the German border region adjoining the Northern Czech Republic, in which some wooden toys are made, specifically the Christmas window displays of candle bows and pyramids and the chunky figural and other nutcrackers (among which the ‘Toy’ Soldier features, by dint of cross pollination with the fairy story’s; The Nutcracker and The Tin Soldier), and having to carry all wooden production in a region 10 times the size, under its banner.

An area taking in - as a minimum - the whole of Bavaria (Bavarian Alps, The Bavarian Forest and Munich), Barden-Wurttemberg and Barden-Barden (the Black Forest to the West and everything between the Black Forest, Stuttgart and the Bodensee/Lake Constance), the Hartz mountains to the North and - to the South; pretty much the whole of Switzerland, most of Austria (the Tyrol) and Northern, Alpine Italy (Mont Blanc and Courmayeur - Piedmont and Lombardy) and areas of France and the Ardennes Forest further North-West (Vosges and Luxembourg) and the Rhine valley west of the Black Forest running north to them.

This is not to ignore the fact that these items also came/come from what is now Poland, the Czech and Slovak republics including areas well south of Erzgebirge and other areas that have nothing to do with the above described area. So; If you consider yourself a serious collector, or wish to contribute to the sum total of knowledge and research, rather than muddying the waters (which happens a lot on the internet!), catch yourself before you casually label something Erzgebirge, remember that a favorite ‘Erzgebirge’ item, the Noah’s Ark with its little sets of paired animals is as likely to have been made in Britain or the US of A than to have originated in some medium sized hills on the Czech border!

And that those very animals, also supplied with nativity scenes and farm sets, little villages and such like were (are) made on lathes, to the same design all over the developed world, and with each village copying the next town, with each family copying the local Co-operative, and with small companies copying large companies in order to get their product sold alongside the other, they have developed into two distinct and universal types…which after my rant in favor of historical and semantic accuracy; we will now look at!

Note that the beautifully carved larger pieces, brown bears, squirrels and such like and the iconic ‘shaved’ trees are as likely to be Black Forest as Ore Mountain!

Lets start with the set I originally said I would cover a few days later, some time ago! This - typically - IS an ‘Erzgebirge’ piece, being from the former East Germany (and a company called Dregeno) where the only ‘alpine’ craft area was the Ore Mountain region to the South.

I fell in love with this set the moment I saw it, it was on my mates stall at a price outside my budget, and he was as happy to break it up as keep it together (no crime, it’s only a 1960’s/70’s shop-stock carton when all’s said and done), giving the box to a late-comer, which might have been me, as he gets annoyed with things at packing up time, and often says “Here, you have it then!”.

As it happened, no one payed the slightest interest in it all day, and next time it came out…it was within my budget! So having taken some photographs when I thought it’d go to someone else, I was able to take it home complete and paw-over it!

Isn’t it brilliant? Six little tractors with their trailers, roughly 1:72 scale (HO railways you see!) mostly wooden construction, but for some reason (a poorly organized soviet-style collective factory?) some of the wheels are composition, pinned-on with a small picture-framers tack, some of the wheels are wooden, glued to the dowel axles.

Strassenbau means ‘road-construction’ (a water tank or tar?) and the AFV enthusiasts among you will recognize Mobelwagen from the boxy Quadruple Flackvierling conversion of a Pz.Kfw.IV as ‘Furniture Van’. If you like them as much as I do, feast on the pictures and then we’ll put them to work…

The little green and red tractor is this sequence, is a perfect illustration of my rant above, it could have been made anywhere toys are made. As it was bought in the UK, it was probably made here, there have been/are lots of wooden toy makers in the UK, mostly small concerns coming and going over the years, many using the slice method to make components and then stick them together into recognizable things like a tractor. This one is made from a slice of routed timber (the body) and various slices of three different diameter dowel, big (back wheels), medium (front wheels, seat and steering-wheel) and fine (exhaust stack and steering column).

The pigs in the middle-right shot are also from dowel, with wire tails and leather feet, the feet can be found as nails, wood-splints, hardened leather or sections of cocktail, or kebab-stick sized dowel. This is the cartoon or less realistic type of common animal design, the other shots show the other common animal type, slice-cut from shaped strips of timber (imagine picture-frame or banister rail, but in a continuous ‘silhouette’ of the animal). They used to be cut on bowl-makers lathes so that one end of older animals is slightly thinner than the other.
The two modern trees in the bigger shot are likewise slice-cut while the routed-dowel figures are very common, both are still made all over the place and neither can be described as Erzgebirge at all.

Of interest re. the Noah’s Arks that so many wooden animals originate from; In Victorian England (and a contemporaneous America?) it was considered poor form for children to play with toys on a Sunday (Bloody Protestant’s, sometimes they’re worse than Bloody Catholics!), but they were allowed to play Noah…because he was in the Bible!…religion; don’cha just love it!

The shot bottom-left has some interesting bits, the figure with the paper-hat could well be Erzgebirge as he has some resemblance to the folk-dress of the Ore Mountain miners, but could equally be from Greece, or somewhere more Balkan? The sitting Nun, again, might be Erzgebirge, but is not representative of work from that small region of the wider wooden toy production belt so should correctly be called a craft or folk-piece.

The buildings and slice-cut figure at the rear of the group have detail pressed into them, which I believe (think, imagine?) is done by softening the wood with steam, whether this would be done before or after they have been cut into their little slices I don’t know/haven’t worked out. But like the slice cutting and lathe-work, this would presumably be a semi industrial process, involving a weighted drop-forge sort of affair, like making coins!

So whether you were a single family, or a larger concern, hundreds-an-hour can be cut, stamped and painted, they would/will then go to another part of the factory, or the village collection point or a regional wholesaler, who divvy’s them up into sets, fills orders and sends them to Macy’s in time for Christmas, or to feed the tourist trade; I’ve seen these in huge displays in shops round the ‘Zoo’ and Ku-damm in Berlin, and down the bridge-end of Bad Tölz* high street as well as the ‘Traditional’ section of Hamley’s!

[* Where my brother and I once took turns sitting at Rommel’s desk and; no, I don’t know what Rommel’s desk was doing in a US Ranger CO’s office in an ex-SS barracks!]


The small shots show some of the common wooden stuff we all had a bit of somewhere in our toy box or playroom as kids, maybe inherited from older members of the family, or kept by Granny for us to play with when we visited (in a tin with Bluebirds or ‘The Haywain’ on the lid!), or maybe found in a mixed lot from the Church Fete or a charity stall at the Jubilee Hog Roast of ‘77.

Again, mostly sectional slice construction with the people being routed dowel. Detail is here either screen-printed or stamped on. The little slotted blocks under the trees top-right are a carry-over from paper toys, and help the items stand-up on an uneven carpeted or flag-stone floor.

The large image is a variety of mostly turned trees and ornamental shrubs; the large one with paint missing at the base may be a fancy finial from the dormer window on a dolls house or something? Dressing-table mirror? The windmill is another example of something which might have been Erzgebirge once, but now comes from all over the place, exactly the same – Same design, same paint scheme, same door and window placing, same sails…as everyone tries to make his product look like the next guys.

So, let’s extend the Erzgebirge region from the already vast area I mapped out above, this set - admittedly - slightly different in design; comes from Spain. This is one from a large range of over 30 sets by Goula, in their ‘Urban’ series. Plastic flats help populate the town with both people and trees & street furniture. From the artwork I’d say 1960’s? Can any Spanish reader put a more accurate date on it?

I need to thank someone for finding this for me, but can’t remember if it was ‘Timpo’ Dave or Matt Thair, (White Tower Miniatures, link should be to the right, but is currently down the bottom somewhere, blame all the changes from Blogger in recent weeks!), so I’ll thank them both as they’re always finding me nice little esoteric small-scale pieces!

Again from the Artwork I’d say 1970’s for this German boxed set; ‘My Little Town’, a very commercial piece, with thick glossy finish, note how the scale between the cars and wagon are miles apart and the finish on the horses is a different style from the other accessories with an over-printed detailing, this set probably originated in three or more workshops and was assembled by Hamba (Haoba or Haba?) once they knew what stock they had for that season and could design the box and tray.

This Tobar (UK Webpage) set was bought in the Army & Navy department store in Camberley, Surrey, sometime in the last 7 or 8 years (if that; 4 or 5?), timeless designs, timeless overprinting, people and animals from three sources in three design types, if you were to take them in the garden and get them a bit worn and dirty, there’s not a toy expert in the world who could tell you if they were made in 1909, 1949, '69 or 2009, or where!


To try an explain the terms I’ve half invented above (after ranting about other people’s casual use of terms…what am I like!), I knocked these sketches up to illustrate the slicing method with a modern strip and the older late Victorian or Willhelmian/Edwardian turned blank. Basically it’s just like slicing bread!

It would be really nice if someone could either provide links to images of Wooden Toy production, or better still; if someone from the industry were to find this, drop us a few comments, especially on the relief detail methods, (steam?).

Because of the craft/folk nature of this stuff and it’s timeless designs, patterns and manufacturing processes, it’ll never be as collectable as say early Elastolin composition Nazi’s, Italian Spacemen or pre-war Britains Yeomanry Regiments, indeed in the wider world of collectables it will never command the respect given to US Cast-iron coin-banks or early Bing Dampfloken (Trains), yet it has a charm that should guarantee at least a little ends up in every serious collection. While the ‘flat’ nature of the trees and fences make them ideal for backgrounds on narrow display shelves.

Go on; save some wooden toys next time you’re at a show or auction, your kids will thank you and it might even be genuine Erzgebirge…sssh, don’t use the word.

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