Thursday, December 24, 2020

Breyer Mysteries: Christmas decorators

Since I have a bit of extra free time this week, I thought it would be fun to tackle another holiday related blog topic, the infamous Breyer "Christmas decorators" rumor. While Breyer has blessed us with a variety of modern holiday decorator offerings in the last few years, everything from dappled red and green horses to clearware to candy cane striped zebras, the subject of vintage Christmas decorators always sparks a debate. Do they exist or don't they? Has anyone really seen one? Can anyone prove it one way or another?

Before we tackle that subject, it's useful to consider the history of the traditional Breyer decorators, the blue and gold beauties that collectors prize so much. In 1964, Breyer offered four decorator colors---gold charm, florentine, wedgewood, and copenhagen---on five molds, the Running Mare and Foal, the Five-Gaiter, the Mustang, and the Fighting Stallion. Very little documentation for them exists, but they were offered for sale in holiday catalogs like Aldens, in department stores like Montgomery Wards, and in five-and-dime stores like Ben Franklin. They did not sell well however, and were probably discontinued by 1965. Despite not having been made very long, the Breyer decorators do seem to have been issued in fairly large quantities. They remain rare to be sure, but a patient collector will find multiple decorators for sale every year on eBay or social media. 

Gold charm Mustang, copenhagen Running Mare, 
wedgewood Running Foal, and florentine Five-Gaiter

Which brings us to the purported vintage Christmas decorators. By the late 1990s, a few collectors reported rumors of Christmas decorators possibly spotted when they or someone they knew were children in the 1960s. These models were either dappled red and green much like the florentine and copenhagen models, or they were solid red and green with white points like the gold charm and wedgewood decorators. Nancy Young mentions these observations in her Breyer Molds and Models books with some skepticism, and interestingly, there is no mention of them at all in Marney Walerius' book published several years earlier. Marney did not shy away from including information that trended more toward rumor than observed fact, and it's interesting to me that the Christmas decorator rumor was apparently not circulating at that time. I myself never heard it until I read about it in Nancy's book though I was familiar with other persistant hobby rumors at that time (more on those in a future post). 
 
As of this writing in December 2020, not one credible scrap of evidence of the existence of vintage Christmas decorators has yet come to light. No models have ever turned up, no photos have been discovered, and not a single ad, price list, or catalog entry has been found. There are of course gaps in the paper trail of Breyer history, especially in the early years of the company, so it is possible that any documentation has simply been lost to time. After all, only a few documents pertaining to the blue and gold decorators are known.

1964 decorator dealer sheet

But while the lack of documentation is not surprising, I do think it's odd that no models have turned up in the last 55+ years. Other small runs from the 1960s are known, even in multiples, like the wedgewood Fury Prancers, the wedgewood Longhorns, and the In Between Mares. Had red and green decorators really been available in stores as reported, you would think at least one or two would have survived and turned up in an estate sale or antique mall. Also, given that the traditional decorators were only available for about a year and given that they did not sell well, would Breyer really have added red and green horses to the unsuccessful blue and gold line up?

It has been suggested by other collectors that the Christmas decorators may be the hobby's equivalent of the Mandela effect, and I suspect they're right. Human memory is of course fallible and definitely persuadable and changeable. The power of suggestion and confabulation of memories are common and well-known phenomena, and they are something pretty much all of us experience. I know I have absolutely misremembered things I thought I was certain of!

So with all of this in mind, I remain skeptical of the existence of vintage Christmas decorators. We can't prove their existence any more than we can disprove it, but as more time passes without one coming to light, the less likely it seems that any ever will. I sure would love a dappled red or green Five-Gaiter though. Maybe Breyer will bless us with some some vintage molds for their Christmas morning special run one of these years. Maybe even tomorrow? A girl can dream!

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Breyer Music Boxes

Since the holidays are just around the corner, this seems like a good time for a post about some of the earliest Christmas catalog special runs Breyer produced, the Fury Prancer music boxes. Issued for several years in the mid-1950s through the Sears holiday catalog, the music box Prancers came in three varieties---palomino with a Cowboy or Lucky Ranger, black and white pinto with an Indian Brave or Chief, and alabaster with an unknown rider.

The music boxes are fairly simple in construction. The musical mechanism itself rests inside the horse's chest and is held in place either by its own size and weight, or in some cases, by a pair of screws in the left shoulder and behind the left elbow that help secure it. A hole cut in the shoulder allows the owner to use a small metal key to wind up the music box mechanism to play. The music boxes were added to the models when they were fresh out of the mold and still in two halves. Once installed, the halves were glued together, and the horses were painted up and accessorized just like their non-music box Prancer brethren. 

The models are very clearly factory originals but some lingering confusion about them still exists, so I'll do my best to clear that up. When collectors first became aware of the Prancer music boxes, there was some thought that they were after market, an idea put forth in Marney Walerius' Breyer Models: Reference and Insurance Guide published in 1991.* Marney wrote that an enterprising Breyer employee took the horse halves home and installed the music boxes before bringing the models back to the factory to be finished. He then supposedly paid Breyer for the models and either sold them or gave them away to family and friends.1 At the time Marney wrote this, very few examples of music boxes were known, and no records about the pieces had surfaced, so she must be excused for what is likely an apocryphal account. 

By the time Nancy Young published her Breyer Molds and Models book in the late 1990s however, important documentation had come to light that revealed the music boxes to have been a rather larger endeavor. To wit, the 1955, 1956, and 1957 Sears catalogs advertised the Breyer music boxes. The 1955 and 1956 editions offered both the palomino and pinto music box Prancers while the 1957 catalog listed only the palomino. In the intervening twenty years since then, a number of palomino and pinto Prancers have turned up, so they're not nearly as rare as they were once thought to be. This combined with the knowledge that the music boxes were official Sears special runs pretty conclusively demonstrates that one employee could never have filled orders to meet the demands of a national catalog (and it makes no sense whatsoever that Breyer would allow an employee to sell as a middle man to Sears either). 

More evidence that the music box idea very likely originated with Sears can be found in the original catalog pages. The palomino and pinto Prancer music boxes are pictured with a variety of other music boxes, everything from dolls and stuffed animals to decorative teapots and purses. The page describes all of them as having Swiss movements which suggests to me that Sears sought out the various  manufacturers of these items and provided the music boxes to them to incorporate into items they already manufactured. The Breyer factory was only a short distance from Sears' main distribution hub and offices in Chicago, so it certainly would have been easy for Breyer and Sears to work together (which of course we know they did for decades).
 
1955 Sears catalog music box assortment

1956 Sears catalog snippet

The 1956 and 1957 catalogs clearly show a Lucky Ranger rider on the palomino Prancer, but the 1955 catalog may show a Cowboy (he appears to have a dark inner shirt rather than a white one). Given the pretty similar color schemes on the Cowboys and Lucky Rangers, it's possible they shipped indiscriminately regardless of the year. The music box in the palomino Prancers plays "Home on the Range."

Lucky Ranger and palomino music box Prancer

The 1955 catalog shows the Breyer Indian Brave with brown pants and squiggly war paint on his arms while the 1956 catalog, which is sepia-toned, appears to show the Indian Chief with turquoise pants and no war paint on his arms. The 1955 description said the brave came with both a plastic feather and the hard-to-find paper headdress while the 1956 catalog listed the single feather and the plastic headdress that replaced the fragile paper version. It's possible both brown and turquoise pants examples were available both years. The music box in the pinto Prancers plays "From the Land of Sky-Blue Water," the popular 1909 song by Charles Wakefield Cadman. 

Indian Chief on a black and white music box Prancer showing
 both styles of headdress and the original parts diagram

Both the palomino and pinto Prancers came in two variations---with or without support screws. The sets without the screws are probably earlier and seem to be slightly less common. The sets with the screws have two---one inserted at the top of the left shoulder and the other just behind the left elbow, presumably to keep the music box from shifting around inside the horse.  

With support screws (left) and without (right)

The alabaster Prancer music boxes however remain a mystery. No reference materials related to them have been discovered, and they are so scarce that for a time, many collectors (including me) wondered if they even existed. One or two were spotted on sales sites in the mid-2000s, though I'm not aware of any hobbyist who actually owns one. The only example I have seen a picture of sports an English saddle (identical to the Race Horse's saddle) and the very hard to find red saddle blanket that is typically associated with the Canadian Mountie. The red saddle blanket is the same design more commonly seen in blue with the Mounties. The red saddle blankets and English saddles were also sold as alternatives to Western Saddles on at least one 1950s price list, but they are so rare that they can't have been available long.

Image courtesy of Robin R.

Could this model originally have come with a Canadian Mountie rider then? If so, this begs at least two questions. One, could it have been offered by Simpsons-Sears in Canada since it was not apparently offered by Sears in the US? Simpsons-Sears did offer at least one unique Breyer special run, a Fury Prancer grooming kit, so it would not be surprising that they might have offered a music box, too. And two, what tune did the music box play? "Oh Canada" or perhaps a tune from the famous Musical Ride? Or just "Home on the Range?" The 1957 Simpsons-Sears catalog does not show a music box, and unfortunately, I have not yet been able to locate catalogs from 1955 or 1956, so I can't shed any more light on this theory yet.

I have heard of one other alabaster music box that had a Robin Hood rider, but it may actually have been the same model pictured above with some alterations to the accessories by the seller. (The history of the piece is a tad murky, and it was offered for sale several times.) Marney also mentioned such a set in her book and claimed the music box played the William Tell Overture. She named the rider as William Tell rather than Robin Hood which coincides with an old hobby rumor that the two known versions of the Robin Hood figure were actually meant to be Robin Hood (green hat and boots) and William Tell (red hat and boots). 

Robin Hood variations

No documentation has ever been found to support this however, so Marney's appellation may be wishful thinking. She did not say whether or not she had actually seen or heard the alabaster music box she references. Until one is found by a collector or until some documentation turns up, it will remain a mystery. If anyone reading this blog happens to have one, please let me know! And if anyone has a lead on the 1955 or 1956 Simpsons-Sears Christmas catalog, I would love to have a look.

(And obviously, even knowing what a long shot it is, I'd love to buy one of these alabaster music boxes if anyone is selling!) 


* For those not familiar with the name, Marney Walerius was a well-known collector who lived in the Chicago suburbs. She began visiting the Breyer factory in the late 1960s and eventually did consulting work for the company until it moved to New Jersey in 1984. Marney helped design and paint test runs and had an extensive collection. She is considered one of the founders of the hobby in the United States. 

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1. Walerius, Marney J. Breyer Models: Reference and Insurance Guide. (Barrington, IL: Self published, 1991), pg. 20.