Just after the close of the Civil War, in 1865, a young German immigrant named Albert Schoenhut settled in Philadelphia and got a job at the famous Wanamaker & Son department store.
Albert had a special affinity for Wanamaker’s toy department.
No wonder. His father and grandfather back in Germany had both been toymakers.
Toy pianos were hot sellers back in those days. Albert felt the miniature pianos, which produced music by means of little padded hammers striking glass rods, could be improved upon.
He developed a mechanism using steel plates in place of the glass rod and in 1872 the House of Schoenhut was founded.
Tiny pianos – The new company specialized in beautifully made little pianos which produced real music. Albert’s tiny pianos were a great success and for several years proved to be the major moneymaker for Schoenhut’s young Philadelphia company.
Today a handcrafted baby grand Schoenhut piano books for $2,395, while a lovely little spinet can fetch $600. Albert would be amazed.
Shortly after the turn of the century, an inventor approached Albert with an idea for a new kind of toy – for a whole new line of toys actually.
Humpty Dumpty Circus – Albert bought the idea, and in 1903 the company’s newly patented Humpty Dumpty Circus appeared in the US, England, Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Spain, Africa and Australia.
Schoenhut billed his colorful jointed wooden figures as “the newest and best unbreakable toy,” and promised that children would never tire of playing with the cleverly constructed playthings.
Of course Albert wasn’t the first to produce jointed toys. But there was a big difference between the Schoenhut figures with their moveable heads and limbs, and the awkward, falt jointed figures Victorian kids were used to.
Production – Production began with a clown, an elephant and a donkey. In 1904, a ringmaster and a hobo were added, along with a dappled horse and a perky dog which joined the cast. Tubs, barrels and chairs added to the fun, and some of the figures had slots in their little feet to enable them to perform some wonderful balancing acts.
The animals, people and accessories were made from hard wood, usually rock maple. A “double axis” lathe was most often used for carving figures. This was a fairly complicated machine, originally designed to produce gunstocks.
A wheel called a “cutter knife” was arranged with four curved knives fixed on its outer edges. This was hung on an axle, supported by an iron frame.
The cutter knife was attached by its axle to a guide, or model wheel.
A swing frame was suspended in front of the wheel, where a block of wood fell against the cutter knife, the model against the model wheel, thus duplicating the design. The pieces were then hand sanded by workers and painted with bright, durable enamels.
Sparkling glass eyes added to the realism of the early Schoenhut animals.
The advertisements for Humpty Dumpty’s Circus promised the toys would “stand the roughest kind of treatment.”
Popular – By 1909, scores of animals and characters populated the Schoenhut circuses. By Christmas of that year, more than 50,000 sets had been sold.
Parade wagons, animal cages and tents lent realistic circus ambiance to the toys as kids all over the world put bareback riders, acrobats, clowns, giraffes, lions and tigers and bears through their paces.
Around 1913, some bisque china-head figures joined the circus. The ring master, a lion tamer, acrobats of both genders and lady bareback riders sported well-sculpted heads which Schoenhut had purchased from European manufacturers.
Clowns – Schoenhut manufactured at least nine clowns in different sizes. They included “Cracker Jack,” “Humpty” and “Dumpty.”
The clowns had special arms and legs with rounded ends, which fitted into shoulder and hip sockets. Elastic cord threaded into holes drilled into limbs.
The faces of early Schoenhut people and many of the animals were “molded.” That is, a molded face, made from a plaster material was glued onto a wooden lathe-turned head.
These are known among collectors as “two-part heads.” They were produced between 1903 and 1912.
In 1913, the imported bisque heads appeared on many figures. Lady riders and acrobats and gentlemen acrobats were produced with a variety of hair colors and styles.
World War I brought a halt to commerce in bisque between the US and Germany and molded wood heads were prevalent after 1915. Collectors call these “one-part heads.”
Glass eyes were replaced with painted eyes and decals after 1918.
In 1924, Humpty Dumpty Circus was repackaged, and marketed to a new generation of youngsters. This time the figures were reduced in size. For instance, the original 8-inch tall ringmaster appeared in a 6-inch version.
Albert Schoenhut died in 1912, but his six sons carried on the business until 1934 when economic conditions were too bleak to support the high quality products. The Schoenhuts didn’t want to cheapen their toys in order to keep the business going.
Some of the brothers formed Schoenhut Manufacturing Company and went back to making toy pianos and model railroad components. Another brother produced Pick-Up Sticks for a while, and yet another took advantage of America’s picture puzzle craze.
In 1952, New Yorker Nelson Delavan obtained rights to release the old Humpty Dumpty Circus. An elephant. a donkey and a clown with a few props made up the basic Delavan group. Large sets with more figures were available too.
He introduced some figures which were not available in the early circuses, like a Palamino and a black horse. The Delavan pieces are sometimes marked with an ink stamp with the words “Humpty Dumpty Circus” in a circle.
Collectors – Collectors don’t think of Delavan’s animals as reproductions though. They regularly bring pieces comparable to the reduced-sized Schoenhut pieces from the 1920s.
The old full-sized examples with two-part heads and glass eyes command more money. Because so many sets were sold, and because of the high quality of the toys and the excellent paint, a surprising number of them have survived the years, and their young owners, in pretty fair shape.
Collectors of Schoenhut menageries are not necessarily limited to the circus creatures. There was a farm set produced in the 1900s complete with cows, pigs, geese and the farmer and his wife.
President Teddy Roosevelt was the inspiration for a big safari set called Teddy’s Adventures in Africa. A glass-eyed gazelle from the Teddy set books today for $2,250.
Because the American made toys had world wide distribution, they still show up in European shops. Prices vary with location, and seem to be escalating.
Prices – Two-part head figures are the hardest to find, glass-eyed animals may command from 50-percent to 200-percent more than those with painted or decal eyes. Because so many of these toys were made, they still show up in attics occasionally, and some of the not-so-rare animals can occasionally be obtained in shops for less than $100.
Elephants and donkeys are the easiest to find. But, be warned: once you’ve brought home that little $50 donkey or $75 elephant, you’re probably hooked. Soon you’ll want a wolf or a bear or a bisque headed blonde lady acrobat. Before long you’ll be tracking down the elusive $2,000 zebu.
Not too long ago a Humpty Dumpty Curcus, circa 1920, with tent and 50 characters realized $16,000 at auction. On a recent Roadshow program , a gentleman displayed a Humpty Dumpty Circus band. The appraiser called it “very, very rare,” and appraised it at $10,000 to $12,000.
More Information – If you’d like to learn more about these fascinating toys, read Schoenhut’s Humpty Dumpty Circus from A to Z