Friday, May 8, 2020

BreyerFest, Boudicca, and Bizarre Uses of My Education

My sister and I recently had the pleasure of being guests on Heather Malone and Jackie Arns-Rossi's Mares in Black podcast (episode #37). One of the things we talked about was what led us to becoming collectibility nerds, and for me, it was an inevitable progression of my love of history combined with my passion for model horses. What could be more natural?

I have been a history nerd as long as I can remember---I'm interested in everything from the Ancestral Puebloans of the American southwest to the history of the Thoroughbred breed to pre-historic Britain  to the earliest people painting cave walls in France and Spain and so much more. (And let's not even get started on paleontology!) But my chief love is and always has been the Celts. What most people associate with the Celts or Celtic culture---all things Irish, men in kilts, and Celtic knotwork---is really more Celtic pop-culture, a narrow distillation of thousands of years of Celtic history and culture. And while the ideas of Celtic pop-culture are not wrong, they're only a tiny part of a broader and vastly richer picture.

What is considered Celtic culture by scholars and historians encompasses the related languages, material culture, art traditions, social structure, and religion of a tribal people who originated in the Halstatt region of Austria around 1200 BC. To make a long story extremely short, these tribes eventually spread across most of western Europe and into western Asia over the course of hundreds of years. The Gaels of Ireland, the Celtiberians of Spain, the Gauls of France, and the Galatians of Turkey were all part of the Celtic diaspora. They sacked Rome and Delphi, they drank their wine unwatered, they spiked their hair with lime, and they fought naked except for the torcs around their necks. They frightened their Greek and Roman contemporaries so badly that the Celts were regular "boogeymen" for many Classical writers.

My obsession with Celtic history and archaeology led me to a couple of (currently unused) degrees in the subject, and so the Celtic Fling theme for BreyerFest this year had me pretty excited. It's not often that my chosen field crosses paths with my hobby---I had such plans! Alas, as everyone knows by now, BreyerFest has been canceled because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. I was pretty sure that would be the case even before it was announced, and Breyer absolutely made the right decision, but it's still sad. The event will at least continue in a virtual form, and I've been loving the special run models they've announced (and especially their names). Epona is of course named for the Celts' patron goddess of horses; Lugh of the Long Arm was an Irish warrior-god of the Tuatha Dé Danann who was said to have invented horseracing; Brighid and Beltane refer to the most important of the Irish goddesses and the May 1st festival celebrating the beginning of summer and fertility for fields and livestock; and oak, ash, and thorn are some of the plants most sacred to the Celtic tribes and the druids.

But my favorite is Boudicca, named for the Celtic warrior-queen who led a rebellion against the Romans in Britain in the first century AD, nearly expelling them from the country for good. Boudicca's story factored heavily in my master's thesis, and so I felt compelled to write a post about her and this wonderful swirly blue horse that I must have.

To understand Boudicca, we first need a quick recap of the position of women in Celtic society and the basic history of Celtic and Roman Britain. The Celts did not have a written language, so we must rely on contemporary Classical sources for this information. Regarding the first subject, Celtic society was surprisingly and unusually egalitarian, especially when compared with the roles of women in Greek and Roman societies whose lives were largely dictated by their male guardians. Celtic women had far more freedom---they could own property, run businesses, be priestesses, judges, ambassadors, bards, healers, rulers, and warriors. This both horrified and fascinated the Greeks and Romans.

As for the second subject, by the time Julius Caesar and his troops first landed in Britain in 55 BC, the Celts had been established there for more than five centuries. That first Roman incursion was little more than a reconnaissance mission, and a real conquest of Britain was not made until almost a century later in 43 AD. The Celtic tribes, even though they shared a linguistic and cultural bond, were independent of one another, and their alliances changed periodically. Because of their general lack of unity, the Roman army was able to sweep across the island, establishing forts and formally subjugating many of the independent tribal leaders as client-kings under Roman rule.

Client-kings were loyal to Rome (primarily out of a sense of self-preservation), but the position did allow them to maintain some level of autonomy. That said, noted Celtic historian Miranda Aldhouse-Green wrote that client-kings became a means of easing conquered peoples into Roman dominion, though they "were [likely] treated with a fair degree of opprobrium by freedom-loving groups at home and with condescension by the Roman government."1 The status of client-king was generally not hereditary, and upon the death of these rulers, the territory they held was often "absorbed into the [Roman] empire proper."2 One of these client-kings was Prasutagus, husband to Boudicca and king or chieftain of the Iceni tribe who inhabited what is now Norfolk and parts of Suffolk on the eastern coast of England.

Boudicca in many ways has become a larger than life figure, but interestingly, most of what is known of her story can be attributed to just one source. The Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a small child when the most important events of Boudicca's life played out, but he married the daughter of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a Roman commander in Britain at the time of the rebellion, so it seems probable that his accounts were based on his father-in-law’s recollections. Tacitus described Prasutagus as "celebrated for his long prosperity,"3 and coin hordes discovered in that region dating to the time of the Boudiccan rebellion suggest that the Iceni were indeed a wealthy tribe.4 This affluence undoubtedly was at least partly to blame for the cascade of events that led to the rebellion.

According to Tacitus, Prasutagus, knowing the transitory nature of client-kingship, "had named the emperor [Nero] as his heir, together with his two daughters; an act of deference which he thought would place his kingdom and household beyond the risk of injury."5 Boudicca assumed leadership of the tribe upon her husband's death because, according to Tacitus, the British Celts "[admitted] no distinction of sex in their royal successions."6 The events that immediately followed Prasutagus' death are not entirely clear. Tacitus implied that Boudicca's assumptive claim of Iceni leadership was an affront to Nero. Dio Cassius, a Roman author who lived a century after the events and who perhaps had access to other sources now lost, added that Roman financiers, chiefly the philosopher and advisor to the emperor, Seneca, called in their loans at that time, which Boudicca presumably refused to pay.7 Regardless of the accuracy of one or both accounts, the Romans' subsequent actions touched off a firestorm that they would long remember and fear to repeat.

Roman soldiers descended on the Iceni territory and pillaged it, treating the people as though they were enemies of Rome rather than still-loyal subjects. They removed tribal elders from their lands and enslaved them, and worst of all, they flogged Boudicca and raped her daughters. These acts of public humiliation and crimes against innocents served to send a message of Roman contempt for the Iceni and also for the impending absolute subjugation of their tribe and its territory.

Incandescent with rage, Boudicca and the Iceni rose up in rebellion and were quickly joined by their neighboring tribe, the Trinovantes, among others. The Trinovantes were restless and unhappy under Roman rule at that time, in large part because of the building of a Roman colonia (a garrison of Roman citizens) at Camulodunum (site of the modern city of Colchester), a settlement that had been the capital of the tribe. According to Dio Cassius, the deliberate selection of that site was in part a punishment for an earlier rebellion.8 Tacitus wrote that the Roman veterans who forcibly settled there "[acted] as though they had received a free gift of the entire country, driving the natives from their homes, ejecting them from their lands, [and styling] them 'captives' and 'slaves.'"9 Of further offense to the Trinovantes at Camulodunum were a temple built to the conquering emperor Claudius and a statue of Victory, symbols whose implications were undoubtedly not lost on the subjugated population. 
As if the treatment of Boudicca's family and tribe was not enough to merit the backlash against Rome, the timing of these events coincided with the convenient absence of the Roman governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, who, thinking the southeast of Britain sufficiently cowed, had marched his troops to the island of Mona (now called Anglesey) in northwestern Wales to subdue the druids whom he considered the greatest threat to peace in Britain. Camulodunum, which had no fortifications, was left essentially undefended, and Boudicca's army swept over it, destroying it as well as the hated temple to Claudius in two days time. The statue of Victory reportedly fell of its own accord in the days before Boudicca's attack, a terrible portent of things to come.10 Her army then met the Ninth Legion Hispania, sent too late to aid Camulodunum, and routed it. Destroying a Roman legion, especially one as experienced as the Ninth which had campaigned in Spain and pacified the Balkans, was a feat of exceptional military strategy and cunning. Tacitus wrote that Boudicca’s army slaughtered the 6,000 strong infantry to a man and that only some of the cavalry managed to escape.11

Upon hearing of the rebellion, Suetonius began a forced march southeast, arriving in Londinium with his light troops ahead of the warring Britons led by Boudicca. Londinium at that time was a commercial settlement less than 20 years old (in terms of Roman occupation), and like Camulodunum, it had no fortifications. Suetonius, who was still waiting for the bulk of the legions at his command to arrive, chose "to save the country as a whole at the cost of one town."12 He retreated to await his troops, and Boudicca’s army poured into Londinium, slaughtering and burning as they went.
(photo from Wikipedia)
Turning north and following Suetonius' retreat, her army sacked the colonia of Verulamium (now St. Albans) as well. Somewhere in the Midlands, probably near Mancetter, Boudicca's army engaged that of Suetonius and was ultimately destroyed. Dio Cassius wrote that the battle lasted most of a day, and that late in the day, the Britons broke and ran.13 Tacitus, who mentioned that a great number of women fought along side the men, wrote that as the Britons retreated, no quarter was given, even to the women.14 He also stated that "Boudicca ended her days by poison,"15 whereas Dio Cassius wrote that she fell ill and died after the battle.16 Whatever the case, both writers agree that without Boudicca's leadership, the cohesion of the British rebellion was lost, and the tribes splintered.

Neither Tacitus nor Dio Cassius gave a clear physical description of Boudicca, and of course, neither of them ever saw her. Nonetheless, she is frequently envisioned by modern writers and artists as a tall, pale woman with flaming red hair. (This very likely has something to do with the rediscovery of Tacitus' works during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.) So Breyer's color choice on this model, a mulberry grey, is quite apt. I gather there was some angst from collectors that the blue woad patterns on the model are not Celtic knotwork, but that too was an appropriate choice. Knotwork did not become prevalent until several centuries after Boudicca's rebellion, so Breyer's nod to the curvilinear Celtic Hallstatt and La Tène art styles is more accurate.

Boudicca's rebellion shook Rome badly, and she remained a reviled character in Roman histories for centuries. But she is now of course considered one of the great early heroes of Britain. Her famous rebellion of AD 60-61 is still so well remembered that numerous books and film productions, both fiction and non-fiction, tell her story, and a large statue of Boudicca and her daughters in their war chariot prominently decorates the bank of the Thames in London near the Houses of Parliament. Aldhouse-Green perhaps sums it up best by stating that "by any standards, Boudicca was a woman 'writ large.'"18

Works Cited:

1. Aldhouse-Green, Miranda. Boudica: Britannia Rebel, War-Leader, and Queen. (Harlow, UK: Pearson Education Limited, 2006), 68.
2. Aldhouse-Green, 26.
3. Tacitus. The Annals. (Trans. John Jackson. Vol. 3. London: William Heinemann Limited,
1943) 14.21.
4. Aldhouse-Green, 26.
5. Tacitus, The Annals, 14.31.
6. Tacitus. Agricola, Germania, Dialogus. (Trans. William Peterson. London: William
Heinemann Limited, 1943), 197.
7. Dio Cassius. Historia Romana. (Trans. Herbert Baldwin Foster. New York: Pafraets Book
Company, 1906), 62.2.
8. Ibid.
9.  Tacitus, The Annals, 14.21.
10. Ibid, 14.32.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid, 14.33.
13. Dio Cassius, 62.12.
14. Tacitus, The Annals, 14.37.
15. Ibid.
16. Dio Cassius, 62.12.
17. Aldhouse-Green, 93.
18. Aldhouse-Green, 93.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Western Horse Shaped Objects, Part 2: Superior Plastics, Ohio Plastics, and the Wells Lamont Connection

Because the Hartland Victor model came first in terms of Western Horse shaped models, I thought it would make the most sense to tackle the subject of Victor copies first, too. And while there aren't nearly as many of them as there are copies of the Breyer Western Horse, they do present a rather interesting story. To wit, I'm pretty sure I have uncovered a previously unknown manufacturer of model horses!

Hartland Victor on the left (courtesy of Barrie Getz);
copies in the center and on the right
I confess I never paid a great deal of attention to Hartland or Breyer copies until I started thinking seriously about this series of posts. I saw copies regularly in flea-markets and antique malls over the years, so I learned to recognize a lot of them on sight, but I never bothered to buy any or look particularly closely at them. If it wasn't a Breyer, I dismissed it. How I wish I had a time machine to go back and pick up some of these copies now! I couldn't have predicted how interesting I'd find them 25 years on. Since I was long overdue for more posts relating to the collectibility judging test I put together a couple of years ago, I recently resolved to acquire a few of the most common Western Horse copies to compare, photograph, and discuss.

The first one I came across was not exactly what I expected, and it proved to be quite an intriguing mystery. While driving up to the Hagen-Renaker Fellowship event before BreyerFest last summer, my sister and I stopped to do some antiquing along the way, and just after I mentioned to her that I was looking for Western Horse copies, we turned a corner and found one waiting for us in the next booth. The horse was a dark brown shade with bronze-gold highlights, and it had a nice Breyer-like heft to it. It was clearly a well-made piece even if it wasn't a Breyer. Later that evening when I examined the model more closely, I realized that it had pointed conchos on the bridle and was therefore a copy of the Hartland Victor rather than the Breyer Western Horse. I knew it wasn't a Hartland either though because it lacked facial veins, the forelock and tail shape and contours were a bit different, and the ears and coronet band were less carefully sculpted. The horse was completely unmarked though, so I had no way to know who might have made it.

Dark brown mystery horse
Shortly thereafter, my parents picked up another Hartland Victor copy for me at an antique mall. This model was black with gold hooves and was made of cheap-feeling, light-weight plastic. The bridle, breast collar, and saddle on the model featured raised, embossed stars, something I knew that was indicative of a piece made by the Ohio Plastic Company.

When I compared both horses in hand, I realized that while they are generally lumped together by collectors as Ohio Plastic creations, they had some interesting differences that made me skeptical of that assumption. Just as with the Hartland Victor and Breyer Western Horse, the differences are subtle, but they were enough to convince me that not only were the horses produced from two different molds, but that the black horse appeared to be a copy of the brown horse, making it a second generation copy of the original Hartland Victor. (The brown horse is on the left in all pictures below and the black horse is on the right.)

The brown horse has a distinctly sculpted breast collar. The black horse's
breast collar is barely there and also has the characteristic embossed stars.

Strange pyramid shaped lump behind the ears on the black horse. The ears on
the brown horse are also more finely sculpted.
The brown horse has nice round hooves and stands square while the black
horse has misshapen hooves and stands with his legs akimbo.
Note the crisper detail on the brown horse and the stars on the bridle of
the black horse.
The brown horse has a tendon groove on his legs and a hint of the
coronet band while the black horse has neither.
In hopes of learning more, I turned to Nancy Young's 5th edition of  Breyer Molds and Models to see if she could shed a little light on the subject. At the time her book was published in 1999, collectors still believed that the diamond concho horses were Breyers. Sure enough, Nancy did discuss the copies of the diamond concho horses, dubbing them "scooper-eared" models. Like me, she had concluded that the two knock-off versions were different, and that the light-weight horse was a direct copy of the nicer, heavier brown horse. Furthermore, she noted that she had observed brown and black examples of the nicer horse, including some beside Mastercrafters clocks. She did not however know the maker. Nancy also mentioned that the cheaper starred horses were probably made by Ohio Plastics, and as a number of these models have since been found in original Ohio Plastics packaging, their origin is confirmed.1

But this still left me with a mystery as to the origin of the brown horse. I embarked on a serious crawl of Google, eBay, and other sites in hopes of finding out more about it. In September, I caught a break when I came across an example of the brown horse on eBay mounted on a brown base. I took a chance on it, hoping that there might be some sort of identification marks on the horse or the base. When it arrived, I immediately turned it over, assuming that any maker's mark or copyright information would be on the underside of the base. No such luck. Disappointed, I flipped the piece back upright and I realized there was a great big block of text on the top of the base right under the horse's tail. Eureka!

The base is somewhat warped
"Superlon Product CHGO."
Given the Chicago-based history of Mastercrafters and Breyer, I was fascinated to see that this, too, was a Chicago-made product. I immediately began researching Superlon and quickly found out that it was not a company name but rather the trademarked name of a kind of plastic, much like Tenite and Bakelite are. Furthermore, Superlon appeared to have been the proprietary product of a Chicago plastic injection molding company called Superior Plastics.

Further searching turned up a variety of Superlon items made by Superior Plastics. In the 1950s, their product line seemed to consist of primarily kitchen and home goods such as lazy susans, kitschy salt and pepper shakers, dishes, utensils, coat hangers, and bathroom items.

Superior Plastics salt and pepper shakers (photo from eBay)
Manufacturer info on the bottom of the above salt and pepper set
(photo from eBay)
A 1951 advertisement for a lazy susan made of
"shatterproof Superon" (from the Montgomery Sun
courtesy of
Another cute S&P set with the original box (photos from eBay)

By the 1960s, Superior Plastics had moved on to making educational models like a small articulated skeleton, a human skull, a lobster, a build-your-own Lincoln Memorial, and more.

(photo from eBay)
(photo from eBay)
I also found a pink glove box on eBay, the bottom part of which was marked identically to the base on my new brown horse. And in fact, the horse's base turned out to be completely identical to the bottom half of the glove box---sans lid and flipped upside down. On a whim, I decided to look through old holiday catalogs and found examples of the same glove box offered in several colors from about 1947 to 1952.

1947 Sears holiday catalog listing
I have since acquired two more examples of the brown horse, one free-standing and another on a base. Interestingly, the second horse on the base is mounted on a brown version of the glove box, too, but this one includes the lid of the box. And the horse is actually attached to the lid rather than the underside of the base.

Happily, both of these horses also came with their original slip-on saddles and one of them also had what are presumably the original reins. The reins are a thin, flat cord of stiff plastic. One saddle is brown while the other is black with gold trim.

Having two saddles and a set of reins in hand allowed me to compare them to the Ohio Plastics versions, and there were again some notable differences between them. The reins on the brown horse are made of a thin, flat strip of plastic that has become brittle-feeling over the years. The Ohio Plastics horses have a wide, flat strip of flexible plastic for reins. The Ohio Plastics saddles have shorter seats and skirts than those on the brown horses, and they have different molding artifacts (from sprues) on the undersides as well. Most importantly, the saddles that came with the brown horses are marked "SP" on the undersides. Other collectors who have owned these models with the original saddles have reported the SP makings as well. Presumably, it's short for either Superlon Product or Superior Plastics.

Note the differences in stance and general quality
Differences in shape, seat and skirt length, and sculpting
Different placement of molding artifacts (from sprues)
The tiny circled "SP" is hard to photograph, but it's there. Also note the
way the stirrup is attached versus on the Ohio Plastics saddle on the right
in the above photo.
With all of this in mind, I have concluded that Superior Plastics is probably the manufacturer of these brown horses. I can't prove it conclusively, but it certainly would be odd in my opinion that Superior made the bases and saddles but not the horses. Furthermore, both Nancy Young and I concluded independently that the Ohio Plastics horses were derivative copies of the Superior Plastics horses. Copying was of course rampant at this time, and Ohio Plastics did in fact copy another Hartland horse as well as a Marx horse. But more on that in the section about Wells Lamont below.

Superior Plastic Horses (presumed)

Now that I've made what I think is a pretty compelling case for Superior Plastics, let's talk about the company itself. Superior Plastics was located just a few blocks southwest of Breyer on the industrial west side of Chicago. The earliest ads I can find for it in the Chicago Tribune are from 1947 and the latest were from 1973. After that, advertising disappears. Several other companies using the same name (or something very close) existed simultaneously or later in other states, but as best I can tell, they were all unrelated. Superior Plastics may have gone under or it may have been subsumed by another company. (I intend to venture downtown to look through business and property records for more information once the COVID-19 lockdown ends.)

Whatever the case, I believe these horses date to the early to mid-1950s based on several pieces of evidence. Because they are copied from the Hartland Victor horse, we know they can't be any earlier than 1949, and given the approximate dates of the glove box bases as predicated by their entry in the holiday catalogs, the horses were likely available by 1952 or 1953. A second piece of evidence dating the models to no later than about 1955 is discussed in the Wells Lamont section below.

To the best of my knowledge, they were issued in two colors, a dark brown shade with bronze-gold highlights and black with gold hooves. I have four examples of the former but have only seen one picture of the latter. Both of my free-standing brown horses are molded in a swirly dark blue-grey plastic. The horse mounted on the partial base (bottom of the glove box) is molded from red plastic, and the horse mounted on the full base (top and bottom of the glove box) is molded in the identical medium brown plastic as the base, further evidence in my mind that Superior Plastics made the horses.

The odd thing about these models is that they don't appear to have been painted dark brown; rather, they appear to be coated in a very thin veneer of dark brown plastic. They can get rubs through this finish, but at least one of my horses has a spot on the leg where the dark brown surface is curling back. Perhaps it's some kind of plasticized paint that bonds with the models? I'm not sure. The bronze-gold highlights are airbrushed on however, and the gold detailing on the tack may be hand-painted.

Red plastic showing through ear rub
Three of my four brown horses are consistently shaded with bronze-gold paint, but this one has much more exuberant highlights.

As I said above, I don't have an example of one of the black Superior horses, but Nancy Young mentioned owning two in her book, one molded in green plastic and the other apparently molded in black plastic.2 They have gold hooves and tack detailing. Another longtime collector shared a photo with me of one of these black horses beside a clock that has also been found with Breyer Western Horses on it. The clocks are cordless and are marked "Chicago" and "USA." They might be Mastercrafters products, but I'll cover those in the fourth installment of this blog series.

Collector Sande Schneider also related that Nancy Young had observed one of the black horses bearing a sticker that read "Red Ryder Gloves/Wells Lamont Corp/Chicago." I'll address this fascinating tidbit in the Wells Lamont section below as well.

Ohio Plastics Horses

To reiterate, the horses made by the Ohio Plastic Company appear to be copies of the Superior Plastics horses, so they are second generation copies of the original Hartland Victor model. All of the examples I've seen are on the crude side and are made of cheap, light-weight plastic. They are not marked, but they can be easily recognized by the stars embossed on the bridle and breast collar.

The company was located in Frazeysburg, OH, and began business in July 1938 although actual production seems to have begun the following year.3 Like most other early plastic manufacturing companies, Ohio Plastics began with industrial items, especially things needed for the war effort in the 1940s. By 1946, they had reportedly branched out to "plumbing fixtures, sporting goods, office supplies, and toys."4 A 1962 news item about the company indicates that plastic horses were one of their primary products at that time.5

Image from 1962 Times Recorder article
(downloaded via
Some Ohio Plastic horses were molded in black plastic like mine and have simple painted on details. I believe these may be the earliest version of the "Western Horse" models Ohio Plastics made. Other models, which I believe are a bit later, are molded in various colors and were airbrushed with a white basecoat before being painted in a couple of semi-realistic colors like alabaster, palomino, and sorrel. The finish on these models is very fragile.

The ball chain reins on this model may not be original
And the uniquely shaped box some of these horses came in
Some Ohio Plastic models were shipped in cardboard mailers as seen above while later models were shrink-wrapped.

Shrink-wrapped Ohio Plastic model owned and photographed by Kristin Chernoff
Shrink-wrapped Ohio Plastic model owned and photographed by Kristin Chernoff
Original shipping box owned and photographed by Kristin Chernoff
Based on advertisements found by various hobbyists and the newspaper image above, we know that Ohio Plastic horses were in production by the early 1960s, and they may have been made as early as the mid-to-late 1950s and as late as the 1970s. In terms of how they look and feel though, I would guess they were primarily 1960s products.

Wells Lamont and Red Ryder

I've known about a cheap knock off of the Hartland Chubby model for some time that is marked "Red Ryder" on the saddle blanket and "Wells Lamont" on the inside of one hind leg. It was sold with a copy of the Hartland Chief Thunderbird molded in light-weight plastic. Not being a collector of Hartland horse and rider sets, I assumed the models were made by Wells Lamont and never gave much thought to them.

(Photo from eBay)
But when I became aware of the black Superior Plastics horse with a Wells Lamont/Red Ryder sticker in the course of research for this blog, I began to look into Wells Lamont more closely. The Superior Plastics models are a much nicer quality than the ones marked Wells Lamont, and I couldn't believe they had been made by the same company.

A brief bit of Googling and a few emails later, I had the answer. Wells Lamont is a Chicago-based glove making company that began in 1907. They have never been in the plastic injection molding business, and they never made model horses. They did however create some promotional gloves in the 1950s as a merchandising tie in with the popular comic strip-cowboy-turned-movie hero Red Ryder.

Red Ryder promotional gloves made by Wells Lamont (photo from eBay)
The Red Ryder comic strip began in 1938 and was one of the longest running Western-themed comics. The titular character was a cowboy living in southwestern Colorado in the 1890s, and he of course had a faithful equine companion, a big black stallion named Thunder. The strip also featured Red Ryder's stereotypical Native American sidekick Little Beaver who rode a pinto pony named Papoose. The comic spawned a number of radio plays and movies and all sorts of merchandising, most famously the Daisy Red Ryder BB gun immortalized in the movie A Christmas Story.

Allan Lane as Red Ryder
I sent an email to Wells Lamont knowing it was a long shot that they'd have any records from the 1950s that might shed some light on the models bearing their name. They responded promptly, and while they did not have records stretching back that far, they could confirm that they had never done any plastic molding. Furthermore, a longtime employee did remember the glove and toy horse promotion, and he said that the company bid out the job of creating the toy horses. Given that Superior Plastics was also a local Chicago business, it makes sense that the company would have won the contract and produced the black horses. Presumably, they were meant to represent Thunder.

And sure enough, eBay came through for me with the confirmation I needed. I recently acquired this set of Red Ryder gloves made by Wells Lamont, one still sealed in the original packaging with the most fascinating promotional offer card tucked inside.

I suppose it might be sacrilege, but I opened the gloves carefully to extract the little card. The packaging is in pretty rough shape, but I was interested to note that this particular design was copyrighted 1953. And the card itself not only confirmed that the horse was made by Superior Plastics as can be seen from the photo (positioning of the legs, presence of a forelock bump, etc), but also that the horse was indeed a model of Thunder, and that offers were only good through May 1, 1955, meaning production must have ceased not long after that date.

This information begs several questions. We know the Ohio Plastics horses were copied from Superior Plastics horses. Did Ohio Plastics simply copy the black and gold paint scheme, too, or did they perhaps make horses for the Wells Lamont promotion, too? Perhaps Wells Lamont and Superior Plastics parted ways just like Mastercrafters and Hartland did, and Ohio Plastics stepped into the void? And where do the black and gold Breyer Western Horse and Pony fit into this timeline? Did they copy the paint scheme, too, or was it just coincidence?

Regarding the first question, at least two palomino Ohio Plastics horses are known that were shipped in cardboard mailers with a Wells Lamont return label, so there was some connection between the companies. When it began and how long it lasted is anyone's guess until more information comes to light. As for the dating, we know the black Superior Plastics horses date to about 1954-1955. The promotion may have run for more than a year, so they may have been made as early as 1952 or 1953, too. The Ohio Plastics horses therefore probably only date from late 1955 at the very earliest. This intriguing September 22, 1955, ad from the Conneautville Courier (Conneautville, PA), mentions a coupon that could be sent in for "a plastic Red Ryder and horse." To the best of my knowledge, no riders have been found in association with Superior Plastics horses, but some generic cowboys have been found with various Ohio Plastics horses. I wonder which horse would have been shipped?

9/22/55 Conneautville Courier ad
Because Breyer catalogs and price list from the 1950s are incomplete and because Breyer used the "Black Beauty" name interchangeably for both the black and gold paint job as well as the black with white socks and bald/star face paint job, we don't know for certain when they issued their black and gold models. Nancy Young suggested dates of circa 1954 to before-1958 for the Western Horse and 1953 to 1955/1957 for the Pony. (A Western Horseman ad from September 1953 does exist picturing the black and gold Western Pony.) So it would seem that the Superior Plastics Thunders and Breyer's models in the same paint scheme were contemporaneous. We may never know if one came before the other or if it was just a matter of convergent evolution.

Which brings us back to the pinto Hartland Chubby copies. Based on the way they're painted, and particularly based on the distinctive way said paint tends to wear and rub, I suspect these models were made by Ohio Plastics. The company did make a copy of the Hartland Chubby with the characteristic stars on the tack, and the pinto model is quite similar. It has a cocked front leg, a roached mane, and no bridle or breast collar, but everything else about it suggests Ohio Plastics to me. Once again, I can't conclusively prove it, but it seems like a reasonable hypothesis. After all, Ohio Plastics had no qualms about copying other companies, and given the quality of their models, they probably could produce their models for less. They may have underbid Superior Plastics at some point or simply lucked into the contract when Superior Plastics moved on to non-horse production.

Interestingly, I did find this October 11, 1955, ad from the Haleyville, AL, paper The Advertiser that mentions the pinto horse and Indian rider. They represent Chief Flying Cloud and his horse from the Red Ryder comic strip or movies (or both).

10/11/55 The Advertiser ad
Ohio Plastics copy of a Hartland Chubby (photo from eBay)
I hope you've all enjoyed reading this as much as I have enjoyed tracking down the clues to piece this story together. If you happen to have more information about Superior Plastics or Ohio Plastics that you'd like to share, please feel free to email me at mumtazmahal (at) gmail (dot) com. I am also most interested in acquiring a black copy of the Superior Plastics horse or at least seeing some good photos of one. I would also love to see any other variations people might own---on a clock, with a sticker, anything! Thanks for reading!


1. Young, Nancy. Breyer Molds and Models: Horses, Riders, and Animals. (Schiffer Publishing Ltd: Atglen, PA), pg. 263.

2. ibid.

3. “Plastic Company at Frazeysburg Begins Huge Expansion Program Designed to Double Manufacturing Capacity.” The Zanesville Signal. (Zanesville, OH), January 13, 1946.

4. ibid.

5. “Ohio Plastics is Town's Top Industry.” The Times Recorder. (Zanesville, OH), August 26, 1962.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Western Horse Shaped Objects, Part 1: Mastercrafters Clocks

Several years ago, I put together a list of basic questions that I felt any Breyer collectibility judge should be able to answer. It's taken me longer than I'd planned to get around to answering all of the questions, but I'm finally ready to tackle the one about how to differentiate between the various Western Horse shaped objects out there---Breyers, Hartlands, Ohio Plastics, Hong Kong knock offs, metal horses, and more. What had been in conception a very simple post with some pictures has morphed into something much bigger, and it will probably take me three or four posts to cover everything I want to discuss. Understanding the histories of these companies and their various imitators is just as important as recognizing the unique features of their models. 

The Beginning: Mastercrafters

Our story begins in 1939 with the advent of the Mastercrafters Clock and Radio Company founded by Ben and Kate Lerman in Chicago, lllinois. They made a few clocks early on, but when WWII broke out, their production shifted, like that of so many other companies, to aid the war effort.  After the war, the company returned to clocks and patented a number of popular designs including ships, airplanes, a girl on a swing, and so many more. Some manufacturing and 
assembly were done at the Mastercrafters factory in Chicago, but they did also contract out with other companies for part molding and even clock movements. (This is why some Mastercrafters clocks have Sessions movements.)1 Mastercrafters’ array of clocks show a particularly savvy understanding of post-war tastes, beginning with ships and planes and moving on to more abstract, mid-century modern styles. As all things Western grew in popularity in the late 1940s, Mastercrafters saddled up and hopped on board that trend as well, debuting a horse clock in late 1948 or early 1949.2 

According to Mastercrafters experts W. Clarke Eldridge and William F. Keller in a 2004 article in the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors Bulletin, Kate Lerman herself was the artistic genius behind many of the company's most popular clock designs.3 A quick patent search shows she was responsible for a number of interesting clocks including the Melody Cruiser, a combined clock and radio in a stylized sailing ship housing. I have yet to track down the patent records for the Mastercrafters horse clocks (if they exist; the patent numbers referenced in Nancy’s book pertain only to the clock mechanism), but it stopped me in my tracks to think that maybe, just maybe, Kate Lerman dreamed up the horse clocks. Wouldn't it be something if we owe all of our plastic horse collecting obsessions to a woman?

The exact history of the Mastercrafters horse clocks has been lost over the years, but collectors have been able to piece together a reasonably solid timeline. For many years, what we now know to be Hartland Victor horses (as well as a variety of copies!) were all believed to be Breyers, but in the early 2000s, a group of collectors led by Hartland expert Mike Jackson and Breyer expert Nancy Young began to suss out the truth based on a variety of small clues.

Mike has an exhaustive explanation of this research with relevant pictures and evidence on his website here, and I highly recommend that all model horse history nerds read it if they haven’t already done so. The gist of this research is that Mastercrafters turned to Hartland Plastics to produce the plastic injection molded horse and base for their clock design in early 1949 or possibly the year before. Yes, the Hartland came first!

The earliest examples of these clocks feature what we now know to be the Hartland Victor model, and the evidence collected by Mike and his fellow researchers proved that this horse was available into 1950. Near the end of that run, Hartland introduced a similar horse with a wavy tail now known as the Hartland Large Champ. Why they switched to a new sculpture is unknown. At some point in 1950, Breyer replaced Hartland as the manufacturer of the horse models for the clocks.

Left to right: Hartland Victor clock, Hartland Champ clock, Breyer Western Horse clock
(Thanks to Barrie Getz for the photo of her Champ clock!)

Why this change came about is unknown. Many hobbyists have speculated that Hartland was unable to fill orders or that they had some sort of disagreement with Mastercrafters. Perhaps Hartland found that selling free-standing models as toys was more lucrative. Or it may be that Breyer, which was located only about 2 miles from Mastercrafters, was a more convenient option (Hartland was located several hours north in the far western suburbs of Milwaukee, WI). It may even be that Breyer undercut Hartland with the offer of a cheaper model. 
We’ll probably never know. Whatever the case, Breyer began producing a very similar horse standing over the clock in 1950. By 1951, Mastercrafters had switched to a style of horse clock featuring a longer base on which the horse was mounted at an angle beside the clock. (Other Western Horse shaped models made by different companies have been found mounted beside Mastercrafters clocks as well, but I'll discuss those in subsequent posts.)

Hartland Victor Clocks and Horses

Hartland Victor clocks are not exactly common, but of the three styles of horse-over-the-clock, they are by far the most easily found. They exist in two basic colors with variations known to each, white/cream and palomino/sorrel-turned-green. The white/cream horses usually have dark brown shading or antiquing in their manes and tails (often referred to as the “cream puff” version), but some do appear to be all white other than their eyes, hooves, and some tack detailing. The shading/antiquing is extremely fragile however, and it’s possible that some (maybe even all?) of the solid white horses found by collectors may have simply been cleaned over-zealously at some point. (A soft toothbrush, soap, and water will take the color right off; more than one collector has accidentally done so.) 

Hartland Victor horse over clock in white/cream
The palomino/sorrel-turned-green horses, dubbed “bile green” by Nancy Young, are usually an unfortunate shade of yellow or green with softer greyish-brown or brown-black shading. Light and dark versions exist, suggesting that the originals may have been two different shades of tan or brown. Or they may simply be examples of color variations within the run. We don’t know for sure. They are less common than the white/cream Victor horses.

Hartland Victor over the clock in bile green
Many of the white/cream Victor models have stains under their saddles where the brown saddle color bled into the white plastic of the horse. Conversely, many of the green horses have patches of their original color hiding under the saddles.

Hints of the original sorrel color under the saddle on the green Victor. The
delineation between brown and yellow-green is pretty distinct.
As seen in the pictures above, Victor horses came on two different colors of clock base: marbled  brown or pale yellowy-green with reddish faux marbling. (The lighter color when used on other Mastercrafters clocks was referred to as "onyx.) I have seen white/cream horses on both bases, but so far, the only bile-green examples I’ve seen have been on the light-colored bases. In general, the white/cream horses also usually have dark brown saddles with gold or white washing on the skirts while the bile-green horses generally have saddles molded in white plastic and painted in similar shades of (what has become) yellow, green, and grey/brown to match the horse. Most of these saddles are the slip-on style with no girth, but a few in both colors have been found with a vinyl girth that buckles rather than snaps. The girth is attached to the saddle with what appear to be small nail heads (rather than the hollow grommets seen on Breyer saddles). 

No girth on my Victor clock horse on the left vs a girth with nail head on
Barrie's free-standing Victor on the right. Note also the variations in yellow
and green shades and saddle decoration.

The bits on most Victor horses are a solid metal bar with a small hole in each end through which O-link reins are attached with small clips. The reins on a few are attached to a wire bit with small round jump rings instead (as is more typically seen on early Breyer Western Horses). These may be late examples. Some have no bit at all, and the reins are just passed through the mouth and held together with a small round ring. Interestingly, a few Victors have been found with no holes in the mouth at all for a bit.

Standard bar bit with clip attachment to reins
While there are some subtler sculptural differences between the Hartland Victor and the Breyer Western Horse, such as the angle of the hooves and the contours of the mane and tail, the easiest way to tell the difference is the shape of the conchos on the bridle. Hartland horses have several pointy, “diamond-shaped” conchos while Breyers just have round ones.

Hartland Victor on the left and Breyer Western Horse on the right
Some free-standing Victor models---with no pegs or no holes drilled in the feet for clock assembly---are known. Again, of the examples in collectors’ hands, the white/cream horses outnumber the bile-green ones.

Hartland Champ Clocks

The Hartland Champ clocks were probably only made for short time in 1950. About a dozen are known to collectors. All of the ones I’ve seen are cream colored with shading/antiquing in the mane and tail like the earlier Victor horses. The most obvious difference between these horses and the Victor or Breyer Western Horses is the wavy tail and the mane on the right side of the neck. 

The Champ models do differ from the Victor horse in other ways. The musculature of the body is subtly more refined as is the head. The conchos on the cheekpieces of the bridle are a bit smaller, and the breastcollar is scalloped on the bottom edge only instead of being comprised of full conchos.

Barrie's Hartland Champ clock
Known examples have brown slip-on saddles, usually with a white/gold wash on them, and though later Champ models were sold with simple ball-chain reins, the examples on clocks generally have O-link reins with bar bits and clip attachments. So far, I have only seen Champs on brown bases.

After its short stint on the clocks, the Hartland Champ model was eventually sold free-standing in a variety of colors, some with generic cowboy or cowgirl riders, and in about 1954, a smaller version was released (after Breyer had released their Western Pony apparently). There are far too many for me to address here, and the clock Champs are the only ones relevant to this series of posts for the time being. For more information about non-clock Champs, Gail Fitch has an excellent book available called Hartland Horsemen

Breyer Horses Over the Clock

Like the Hartland Victor models they were copied from, Breyer’s first Western Horse models came in alabaster or palomino. The alabaster horses usually have antiquing in the mane and tail like the Victors, and it is likewise quite fragile. Solid white examples are also known, but they may or may not be formerly antiqued models. As with the Hartland Victors, we just don’t know because so few examples are in the hands of collectors. The palominos happily have retained their original color unlike their Hartland brethren. The alabaster horses over the clocks usually have black hooves, but I have seen both black and grey-hooved palomino examples. (The grey-hooved example may not have been original to the clock.) A number of these early Western Horses are made from chalky plastic.

Breyer Western Horse clock in palomino
Breyer horse-over-the-clock Western Horses, regardless of color, only seem to have been issued on brown bases. Both the palomino horses and the alabasters usually had brown high grommet snap saddles. Like the Victors, they have been found (rarely) with bar bits and clips, and more typically with the O-link reins attached to a wire bit with round jump rings. A few are bitless as described above. The sample size for these clocks is small, so more variations may come to light.

Breyer Western Horses Beside the Clock

By 1951, Mastercrafters had begun selling the more commonly found clocks with horses standing beside them. The clocks are inserted in an enameled metal, horseshoe-shaped frame decorated with a bas-relief of a cowboy roping a steer. The bases are a marbled brown color that resembles tortoise shell. As usual, the horses may be either alabaster or palomino. These clocks were likely made for several years because they exist in far greater numbers than any of the other styles.

The earliest examples have black hooves, and the alabasters had the usual antiquing. Later examples have grey hooves. A number of them have been found with cream colored felt saddle pads. We don't now for sure how long these clocks were made, but probably until 1953 or 1954, and possibly even a bit later.

An antiqued alabaster version
A solid white alabaster version

A palomino version
Like Hartland, Breyer began to offer free-standing horses for sale soon after their deal with Mastercrafters. According to research by Nancy Young and corroborated by Mike Jackson, they released the mini-me Western Pony by early 1953,4 and within a few years, both Breyer and Hartland had expanded their lines to include a variety of riders and other horses.

While models by both companies have been copied over the years, the Hartland Victors and Breyer Western Horses seem to have been copied particularly often by a number of companies. Collectors  have been able to identify a number of these copies and make reasonable guesses about when they were made, but a few are still mysteries. Interestingly, some of these copies are of surprisingly good quality and are becoming collectible in their own right. More on those oddities and how to spot them in the next installment!

(Also, if anyone has a Hartland Champ clock for sale, please contact me at mumtazmahal (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks!)

1. Eldridge, W. Clarke, and William F. Keller. The Mastercrafters Story: 1939-1988. National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors Bulletin, August 2004.

2. Mike Jackson's article on Mastercrafters Clocks:

3. Eldridge and Keller.

4. Mike Jackson's Champ history page: