Saturday, January 11, 2020

Breyer Mysteries: The Small Poodle

In the mid-1950s, hoping to capitalize on the popularity of poodle skirts, sock hops, and a booming toy market, Breyer created a Poodle model to supplement their line of horses. Sculpted by Chris Hess, the elegant dog stood square, sporting a typical Poodle cut, a fragile tufted tail, and a collar with twin bows. It never went into production however, and no documentation of the piece existed beyond a forgotten injection mold inventory list. By 1957, a different, larger Poodle, a direct copy of the Rosenthal Poodle sculpted by Professor Theodor Kärner, had joined Breyer's line up instead.

...And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend, legend became myth, and for forty long years, the Small Poodle passed out of all knowledge. Until, when chance came, it ensnared a new bearer...

"My preciousssss"
(Sorry, I couldn't help myself.)

Anyway, because of this, the Small Poodle was even more enigmatic than the In Between Mare for a time. Thanks largely to Marney Walerius, we at least had a reasonable idea of the history of the IBM even if very few examples were known. In contrast, no one in the hobby or at Breyer knew that the Small Poodle even existed until the fall of 1996. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The story began a year earlier when Nancy Young, Breyer historian extraordinaire, received a call from Stephanie Macejko of Breyer in September 1995. Stephanie had found an old inventory list of the company's injection molds, and it listed both a Large Poodle and a Small Poodle. Neither she nor Nancy knew why two Poodles were mentioned, and eventually Stephanie had an opportunity to check the warehouse, determining that the list must refer to the interlocking convex and concave pieces of the mold for the Poodle model copied from Rosenthal.1

Fast forward a year to September 1996 when respected collector Bob Peterson contacted Nancy about a collection he had recently purchased from a former Breyer sales rep. Included in this collection was a small blue-grey Poodle that the rep was certain was a Breyer. He had displayed it one year at a New York toy fair before moving on to work for other companies. As far as he knew, the Poodle had never gone into production due to lack of interest from retailers. He also owned a few other mid-1950s models---a Corky and Bimbo, a black Western Horse, and a Brahma with the original hang tag, among others.2

As you can see from these photos, the Poodle was handled quite a lot at some point, presumably during its toy fair stint. The shaved parts of the body were originally pale grey while the fuzzy coat is blue-ish grey. It has a pink collar with light blue bows. The tail tuft was broken long ago, glued sloppily, and eventually lost.



After seeing Bob's extraordinary Poodle, Nancy recalled her conversation with Stephanie the year before and encouraged her to double check the heavy molds in the warehouse. Sure enough, closer examination proved that the Large Poodle mold was for the dog copied from Rosenthal, and the Small Poodle mold was in fact a match for Bob's incredible find.

After the exciting rediscovery of the lost Small Poodle mold, Breyer featured it in their Just About Horses magazine (published bi-monthly at that time), and then surprised collectors with a special raffle at BreyerFest in July 1997. The raffle was for sixteen Small Poodles, four each in cinnamon brown, shaded alabaster, grey, and glossy black. One additional cinnamon brown Poodle was sold in the auction that year. Stephanie Macejko confirmed to Nancy Young that no more than six of each color had been made,3 and one of each are kept in the archive room at Breyer.

The archive dogs posted to Breyer's FB page in January 2020
At BreyerFest 2000, a cream colored Small Poodle was offered in the auction. And then, later that year, lightning struck once again for Bob Peterson. He acquired the collection of the late William Ciofani, the former chief designer and painter for Breyer. Ciofani started work for the company in the 1950s and was instrumental in designing and painting models for Breyer for 40 years.4

To say that the Ciofani collection was extraordinary is an understatement. It included three woodgrain In Between Mares, a pink plastic elephant, various test runs, and most significantly, another Small Poodle. This pup is painted pink on the shaved areas and has a white fuzzy coat. The collar is gold with red bows. Like the blue-grey Small Poodle, the tail tuft is also missing on this Small Poodle.



The re-released Small Poodle made one last appearance as a special run of 600 pieces in cotton candy pink at BreyerFest 2009. The mold has not been used since.

As of this writing in January 2020, no other vintage Small Poodles have turned up in the intervening  years either. I would guess a few more may exist, but whether they went home with a Breyer employee and are waiting to be discovered or instead ended up in a landfill is anyone's guess. To date, only the blue-grey and pink-and-white dogs shown here are known to collectors. My family acquired them both from Bob in 2013.


While we have been able to infer a little bit about the history of the Small Poodle, the big questions remain. When exactly were they made? And why was the mold never put into production?

Let's start with the second question as I think it has some bearing on the first one. The former Breyer sales rep who sold the blue-grey Small Poodle to Bob thought the model had never been produced due to a lack of interest in the piece.5 That absolutely may have been the case, but I think an even bigger problem was the fragility of the tail. Both known vintage Small Poodles are missing their tail tufts, and given the tiny diameter of the tail bone itself, I imagine these pups were very difficult to mold. And even if Breyer had found a way to mold them easily, that little tail would not have held up to play. For a company that marketed its plastic horses and animals as virtually indestructible, this would have been a problem. Furthermore, the Small Poodle is hollow (like most Breyers) including the tail bone. The Large Poodle in comparison is solid cast with a thicker tail bone, making it far more durable.

With all of that in mind, we can't say precisely when the vintage Small Poodles were made, but I think it can be narrowed down to a span of a few years. Without a doubt, the Small Poodle mold dates to the 1950s. It has no mold mark which would suggest a pre-1960 origin, and in fact, I think it must have been made before 1957 when we know for sure the Large Poodle was in production. I believe the Small Poodle predates the Large Poodle; as I mentioned above, the tail bone and tuft on the Large Poodle are more substantial and easier to mold, so it wouldn't make any sense to sculpt a smaller, more fragile Poodle after the sturdier one went into production. In addition, Rosenthal was likely unaware of the Breyer copy, and as a German company, it would have been difficult to pursue a copyright infringement suit against Breyer anyway. So it makes sense that the Small Poodle was a failed experiment and the Large Poodle was its replacement.

Because Breyer catalog and price list records from the 1950s are incomplete, we don't know for sure when the Large Poodle was first issued. Based on what evidence we do have---a partial catalog and price list that is likely from 1955 or 1956 that does not include the Large Poodle and both a Sears and Spiegels holiday catalog from 1957 that do include a Large Poodle---I think it's a reasonably safe bet that the dog was first issued in 1956 or 1957. (It may have gone into production as early as 1955, but I suspect the timing coincides more closely with the sewing kit/perfume special run dogs in the 1957 holiday catalogs.)

Based on a letter from June 1955 owned by Peter Stone and shared with Nancy Young,6 we know Chris Hess sculpted Lassie in late 1954 or early 1955. The sculpting style of the Small Poodle is quite similar to Lassie, so my hunch is that the two dogs were probably sculpted at around the same time.

All of this information suggests to me that the Small Poodles had to have been molded no later than 1956 to allow time for the dog to be rejected and for the Large Poodle to be approved, molded, and in production by no later than 1957. In all likelihood though, they were made earlier, probably sometime in 1954 for display at the toy fair in February 1955 (or
 in 1955 for display at the 1956 toy fair). I'm inclined to believe the earlier date is correct as that would make the most sense given the other models the former Breyer sales rep also owned.
A comparison of the Large Poodle and Small Poodle
We'll probably never know the whole story on the Small Poodle, but I think my hypotheses are fairly sound. Perhaps more Breyer catalogs or price lists from the 1950s will eventually come to light and reveal some of production-date mysteries of that decade.


(Also, stay tuned for future installments of Breyer Mysteries!)

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Sources cited:
1. Young, Nancy. Breyer Molds and Models: Horses, Riders, and Animals. (Schiffer Publishing Ltd: Atglen, PA), pg. 325.
2. ibid.
3. ibid.
4. Email correspondence with Bob Peterson in 2013
5. Young, 325.
6. ibid, pg. 324.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Breyer Grooming Kits

When I first saw the announcement for Trailblazer, Breyer's 2020 Vintage Club retro grooming kit Western Horse, I may have squealed out loud. (Who am I kidding, of course I did!) Not only is he a fun homage to the (hilariously named) Giant Palomino Groomer of the 1950s, but he also comes with a very cool vintage-style box based on the old Breyer horse and rider set boxes. It's an absolute smorgasbord of Breyer vintage nerdiness, and I must have one (or even two as there appears to be a version with a plastic slip-on saddle as well). I've been meaning to blog about Breyer grooming kits for quite a while, and now that Trailblazer has been announced, this seems like the perfect opportunity.


In the early 1950s, Westerns were at the height of their popularity. The genre had been lucrative for decades for writers from Zane Grey to Louis L'Amour, and for movie producers from the days of silent films, but as televisions became more common in American homes in the boom years after World War II, Westerns became a true pop-culture phenomenon. Many companies cashed in on this trend with all manner of "Cowboy and Indian" themed toys, child-sized cowboy boots and hats, toy six-shooters, and much, much more. Holiday catalogs were full of all sorts of these items catering to both boys and girls, and Breyer of course was right in the thick of it with horse and rider set offerings like Kit Carson, an Indian brave and chief, several cowboys, and Western Horses and Ponies in a variety of colors.

Breyer offered their horse and rider sets for play, but they also offered some spin off items like the Fury Prancer music boxes (more on those in a future blog) and various grooming kits, most with a Western theme. I don't have a full library of old catalogs at my disposal, so this post may not contain an exhaustive list of Breyer grooming kits, but as far as we know, the first grooming kits debuted in the 1954 Sears holiday catalog. They consisted of a regular run palomino Western Pony, but in place of the usual plastic snap saddle, the pony sported a vinyl "pack saddle" instead. Each pack saddle had a snap girth and several pockets on either side to hold a toothbrush, plastic comb, nail file, and nail clipper. My family acquired several different old grooming kits still sealed in the box in the 1990s at our favorite flea market, so we know that while Sears very likely supplied the vinyl grooming kit saddles and the little accessories for the grooming kits, they were packaged and sealed at the Breyer factory. (Sears of course is also a Chicago business, and at that time, its main ordering and distribution hub was less than 2 miles from Breyer, making collaboration between the companies an easy venture.) These Western Pony grooming kits constitute some of the earliest special runs that Breyer offered. (The Mastercrafters clocks technically have the distinction of being the very first.)

A 1956 Sears holiday catalog ad
A typical Western Pony grooming kit found with the original box
Interestingly, Breyer used regular Western Pony cardboard mailer boxes for their grooming kits. The only thing to indicate there was something other than a normal pony with the standard plastic saddle inside was the item number stamped on the box. By the early 1960s, grooming kits were also available on alabaster and black and white pinto Western Ponies. Some came with different accessories, such as the rifle-shaped pen, ruler, and eraser with the alabaster pony below. The Western Pony grooming kits were available off and on in the 1950s and 1960s and were last seen in the 1973 Sears catalog.

A 1962 Sears holiday catalog ad
Another 1962 Sears holiday catalog ad
As you can see from the photo below, the vinyl pack saddles came in varying shades of tan and brown, and some were smooth while others had an embossed surface meant to mimic leather tooling. The designs include steers, lariats, spurs, bucking broncos, cowboy boots, etc. Several tooling patterns have been observed, and some of these pack saddles have dark "tooling" on the designs while others have shading all over.

The black saddle came with the rare My Lady Fair sets discussed below
In 1956 and 1957, the Sears catalog offered the palomino Western Horse with a grooming kit saddle and accessories as the Giant Palomino Groomer. Like his smaller compatriot, the Giant Groomer has been found with a smooth or tooled pack saddle, and they contain a toothbrush, plastic comb, nail file, and nail clipper. The Western Pony grooming kits are fairly common which is not surprising given how long they were offered. The Giant Groomer sets are much harder to find.

Two styles of "tooled" grooming kit saddles
In 1956 and 1957, Sears offered a feminine twist on the Western Pony grooming kits. The My Lady Fair grooming kit featured an alabaster Western Pony with a black pack saddle that had loops on the side to hold barrettes as well as pockets for a comb and nail file. The 1957 Canadian Simpsons-Sears catalog also featured a My Lady Fair set, but on an alabaster Fury rather than a Western Pony. These black pack saddles are exceedingly rare. My sister and I have three---one each found on an alabaster Western Pony, an alabaster Fury, and surprisingly, a black and white pinto Western Pony. I know of only a few other saddles like this in the hands of collectors.

1956 Sears holiday catalog ad
1957 Simpsons-Sears catalog ad

The barrettes in this set are reproductions.
The 1958 Sears holiday catalog featured some of the most rare and desirable of the grooming kits, the alabaster Proud Arabian Mare and Foal sets and the Western Pony with the houndstooth blanket. The PAM and PAF set were offered in 1958 only because, by mid-1959, Breyer had been sued by Hagen-Renaker for copyright infringement. Hagen-Renaker won, and the PAM and PAF were discontinued before the next holiday season. The Western Pony with the unique blanket grooming kit was offered in 1958 and 1959, but he, too remains exceedingly scarce. I know of only two mares, both found new in the box in the Atlanta area (now owned by my sister and me), around 10 foals in boxes, and at least four of the Western Ponies with houndstooth blankets (two of which were found with boxes and are in our collection). I'd to love to hear from anyone who might have a PAM or Western Pony grooming kit like these!

1958 Sears holiday catalog ad

The PAM grooming kit features a uniquely shaped powder blue vinyl saddle with pockets for a plastic comb, nail file, nail clipper, pen, and notebook. The set also includes a strip of gold leaf so kids could emboss their name on the notebook (or saddle or horse or sibling).


The PAF grooming kit has a matching blue saddle on a smaller scale with pockets for the cute tortoiseshell barrettes included in the set.


The Western Pony has a most unusual grooming kit saddle, a checked vinyl blanket with a smooth saddle-like section complete with stirrups. It snaps under the belly like all of the other grooming kit saddles. The stirrup leathers are attached to the blanket portion and have loops to hold a plastic comb, toothbrush, nail file, and a ballpoint pen. Like the more common Western Pony grooming kits, it came in a box with a line drawing of a regular pony, and only the item number stamped on the box indicates it's not a normal Western Pony.



Another very rare grooming kit is the bay Rearing Stallion set pictured below. I have only seen one example which is in our collection. The saddle is about the same size as the Western Pony saddles, but the pockets are cut at an angle (rather than being rectangular), and this set came with the less common accessories, a ruler, rifle pen, and eraser. As I mentioned above, we don't have a complete record of holiday catalogs, so as of this writing, the Rearing Stallion set has only been spotted in the 1966 Sears holiday catalog. (I don't have a photo of my Rearing Stallion set yet, but I'll add one after the holidays.) Do any of my readers have this unusual groomer, too?

1966 Sears catalog ad
A Western Pony grooming kit saddle on the left
and the Rearing Stallion saddle on the right.
The 1969 Gamble Aldens catalog also advertised a rare grooming kit, an appaloosa Running Stallion set that held a comb, toothbrush, nail clipper, and file. I have not seen a set in person yet, but from the picture, the saddle appears to be identical to the ones sold with the Giant Palomino Groomers. 


Interestingly, at least one knock-off of the Breyer grooming kits was made. I have seen three examples of a pseudo-bay Hong Kong horse, a crude copy of the Breyer Western Prancer, all wearing brown vinyl grooming kit saddles with a name printed on them---Tammy, Rusty, and Mike. My sister and I actually own two of the three. We bought the first one thinking that perhaps the saddle might have been meant for a Breyer and had just ended up on the wrong horse at some point over the years. But having seen three identical sets now, I'm certain these are not Breyer saddles. The construction of the saddles is very similar to the Breyer saddles however, so whichever company made them may have been the source for both the Breyer sets and the knock-off sets. I would guess these Hong Kong copies were also offered through a mail order catalog, and while the horses were manufactured overseas, the saddles and accessories were probably sourced here in the US. The saddles all bear different names, Tammy and Rusty in print and Mike in cursive, which suggests to me that the sets could be ordered with personalization for the recipient.

Hong Kong grooming kit personalized for Tammy
Breyer's Western Prancers were first issued in 1963, so these copies must of course be later. I would guess they date from the late 1960s or early 1970s.

Hong Kong copy personalized for Rusty (photo from eBay)
Hong Kong copy personalized for Mike (photo from eBay)
The Western genre was on the decline by the 1970s, so I would guess these sets, along with the ones Breyer made, were discontinued by the mid-1970s at the latest. As I mentioned above, the last appearance of the Breyer grooming kits came in 1973. The world by that point had moved on technologically and culturally by leaps and bounds since the 1950s, and the toy market was geared more towards the space race than a nostalgic look back at the Old West.

My parents grew up in the 1950s, and so as a kid growing up in the early 1980s, they happily encouraged my cowgirl phase with a Clip-Clop horse, a hat, boots, and little cap guns. I have never really outgrown my fondness of Westerns---everything from classics like the Lone Ranger and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly to Longmire and Firefly---and I am delighted that after almost 50 years, Breyer will be offering a new grooming kit for us. I can't wait!


(ETA: Many thanks to my friend Lisa R. who sent me a copy of the Running Stallion ad!)

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Jane Addiction: Been Caught Collecting*

I conga a handful of Breyer molds because it's reasonably affordable to do so, and acquiring interesting variations to fill out a particular collection can be lots of fun. (For example, I posted about my herd of dapple grey Proud Arabian Mares a while ago.) But conga collecting clinkies has never really been something I've pursued. Chinas tend to be quite a bit more expensive than your average plastic model, they're often much harder to find, and most were never released in a wide variety of colors and patterns like you see with plastic models.

Nevertheless, I seem to have sort of accidentally-on-purpose acquired a scurry of Hagen-Renaker Designers Workshop Jane (B-720) squirrels. Jane was masterfully sculpted by Maureen Love, and at a little over 5 inches tall, she's almost life size.


This inquisitive critter was first produced at Monrovia from spring of 1960 to fall of 1961 and again from fall 1965 through spring 1966. In spite of this fairly short production timeline, variations abound. The Monrovia production colors were glossy solid red with a bit of white on the muzzle and chest and matte grey with white highlights. Jane doesn't seem to crop up for sale very often, so the only Monrovia red I have seen is my own.



Two distinct versions of the Monrovia grey Jane exist. The first is a soft matte grey with glossy white highlights on the chin, chest, front legs, and tail. The amount of white varies from piece to piece.

My first grey Monrovia grey Jane came from the Hagen-Renaker archive sale. She has a Monrovia oval name sticker.


My next Jane was purchased from a fellow collector. She looks quite similar, but has slightly less extensive white on her underside and tail.


My third grey Jane came from the same collector, and she has much more extensive white on her legs and the side of her face, but she has almost no white at all on her underside. I believe that her decoration style may represent a transitional period between the earlier Janes above and the later ring-eyed Jane pictured below.




I don't know this for certain, but I am guessing this darker grey ring-eyed Jane dates to the second Monrovia production period from Fall 1965-Spring 1966. She lacks any white on her underside, and her heavy, dark grey glaze combined with the oddly ringed eyes look rather crude compared to the softer grey Janes above. If my dating of these color variations is correct, this later, somewhat cruder work coincides with a time when the HR factory was in the process of moving from Monrovia to San Dimas. Because she came from the collection of Karen Grimm, it was suggested to me that she might be a test, but I know of at least one other ring-eyed Jane pictured in the Charlton guide. (Does anyone reading this blog have a Jane like this?)


Jane was also produced at San Dimas from Fall 1969 to Fall 1972. She was again offered in glossy red but this time with white on the belly, legs, and face. She was also produced in a solid glossy grey color with lighter grey highlighting on the tail. The red squirrels varied a bit in the intensity of their red-brown color and in terms of how much white they have on the faces and legs.

San Dimas red #1: more white on face, less on front legs
San Dimas red #2: less white on face, much more on front legs

San Dimas grey
Despite being offered for a little over 6 years altogether, Jane is not a very easy piece to find. I imagine she might have been a challenge to mold, so it seems possible that production numbers were limited during the years she was available. Or, despite her charm, perhaps Jane simply didn't sell well. (I can't imagine why---she's adorable---but some people do view squirrels as pests.)

Mostly through luck, I have added a surprising assortment of test run Janes to my collection. The first two are from the Hagen-Renaker archives which were sold on eBay throughout 2015 after John Renaker passed away in November 2014.

This grey test Jane looks very much like the Monrovia release, but she has a completely white tail. She also has a great deal of white over-spray on her body under her tail that was not cleaned up before firing.


Jane was never officially produced at the San Marcos factory, but nonetheless, several tests from those short years in the 1980s do exist. This glossy solid white Jane also came from the Renaker estate archive sale.


A second glossy white Jane came out of the collection of a former employee and now belongs to my sister.


This glossy solid red Jane came from the same collection, and interestingly, it was cast in white slip rather than brown.


Likewise, this glossy solid black Jane from the same collection was also cast in white slip.


Probably the oddest Jane in my collection is this matte grey-ish brown critter. I found her on eBay from an Arizona seller for the bargain price of $6, and as you can see from the pictures, she has had a hard life. Based on the dirt caked into her crazing, I believe she must have spent some time outdoors, possibly as a garden or yard decoration as Maureen Love was wont to do with her creations.

She was poured in greyish-brown slip and has a bit of subtle shading to bring out the mold detail. But what is she? My first thought was that maybe she was a matte version of the San Dimas grey that escaped the factory without being glossed. But she is definitely not the same base/slip color as my glossy San Dimas grey Jane. And she doesn't match the slip color of my Monrovia matte grey Janes either. Maybe she was poured, either deliberately or accidentally, in the wrong slip color and then finished and sold or was taken home by an employee. Similar instances with other models are definitely known. Could she be a test? Maybe. I'll probably never know, but I think she's a pretty neat find even in her damaged state.


After Maureen Love passed away in 2004, many of the sculptures and sketches she kept for herself were dispersed by her family the following year on eBay. I was a poor grad student at the time, and I deeply regretted not having the means to purchase any of the art from her estate. Last fall, however, Maureen's granddaughter offered up several hundred more sketches on eBay. Given my Jane addiction, it should come as no surprise that this particular sketch came to live with me.


I have yet to get it framed (it's double-sided), but one of these days, it will hang next to a display of my Janes. And probably some other squirrels. I may have inadvertently started collecting more...

Monrovia Betty sculpted by Maureen Love
Monrovia Peggy sculpted by Maureen Love
Hagen-Renaker Mrs. Chatter sculpted by Robyn Sikking and brown baby
"Chat" mold probably sold by Robyn directly

* (with apologies to Perry Farrell, Dave Navarro, et al. Oh, who am I kidding. That was an amazing pun.)