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 ten foals in boxes, and about six 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 several 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, Mike, etc. My sister and I actually own two of them. 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 multiple 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, either in print or 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 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.)

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

HRCC Fellowship 2019

My annual pilgrimage to Lexington for BreyerFest kicked off a bit early this year. My sister, Sarah, and I decided we both wanted to attend the Hagen-Renaker Collectors Club Fellowship event in Dandridge, TN, so I flew down to Atlanta to meet up with her the weekend before. On Monday of BreyerFest week, we hit the road, stopping to look through some antique stores along the way. We found a few fun things, including a rare sighting of this fellow. Who knew there were Sasquatch in Georgia? And damn fine stuff for that matter.

Speaking of good stuff, Sarah and I were idly talking about this blog as we wandered through a large antique mall, and I mentioned a plan for a future post about Hartland Champs, Breyer Western Horses, and the various knock-offs of both that you see regularly. She gets out and about more often to hunt for horses than I do, so I asked her to keep her eyes peeled for reasonably priced copies. The words had barely left my mouth when we turned a corner and were confronted by this handsome fellow. He's a nice copy of the Hartland Champ (note the pointy Hartland-style conchos on the bridle) made of some sort of heavy tenite-like plastic. He's cast in brown plastic with painted gold highlights. (I've seen these identified as having been made by Ohio Plastic, but based on an actual OP horse I own, I doubt very much they were made by the same company. There are radical difference in quality, but that's a matter for a future post.)

We checked into the host hotel right around dinner time and then headed over to HR TN for the festivities. All attendees received adorable HR mini milk pails that Kristina Lucas-Francis had custom glazed as spilled slip buckets. And everyone was given a ticket to enter one of several raffles. Prizes included a Cabellas gift certificate, HR Little Horribles "Moose" figurines, and other fun stuff.

HRCC members who had ordered Frosty, the beautiful new bay roan Crusader, were able to pick up their models that evening, and Debut, a new release on the old Mini Head Up Horse mold was available for sale as well. Needless to say, one came home with me. His shaded grey color is a wonderful homage to the early days of Hagen-Renaker, and the mold detail on these guys is just incredible.

Besides shopping, touring the HR museum, and socializing, one of the evening's activities was glazing soothing stones. Kristina made these from an impression of the DW Love's head.

Later that evening, some of the raffles were drawn, and I had the good fortune to win this ridiculous Little Horribles piece, my very first from that line. The Little Horribles were made in 1958 and 1959 only, and all were issued with a little illustrated card with a saying or pun about each piece. Moose's saying was "I think I'm over the hump." Most of the jokes fall a bit flat these days, but humor does evolve like everything else. Moose is weirdly cute all the same.

The following morning, we rolled out of bed early to grab some breakfast before the sales room opened at the host hotel. We had a lovely time chatting with old and new friends while we sipped lots of coffee. (Because who doesn't want to load up on caffeine before handling fragile clinkies, right?) The room was small, but there were so many lovely things for sale. Sarah and I each found a few pieces to add to our collections.

Kristina L-F, Kim B-T, Barb N, Lisa E, and Ed Alcorn with his table of goodies
Kaylene W shopping at JoEllen A's table
Janet H minding the Share the Love table for Dawn S
Jane C and Rhoda W
Heather Wells brought along 21 of the Cartoon Horse (the ultra rare Sleeping Beauty Sampson mold) re-releases glazed in the wrong shade of brown to raffle off. Sarah and I were thrilled to both be drawn to buy one.

My loot!
When lunch time rolled around, we decided to head into Dandridge to see the sights and get some food. The reservoir next to downtown is lovely and peaceful.

We ended up driving along the reservoir for about 10 miles until we reached the lock and dam. The views with the Smoky Mountains across the lake were spectacular!

Because we had to head back to Georgia to pick up our parents and our BreyerFest showstring, we couldn't stay late at HR TN that evening. We said our good-byes, grabbed a sandwich for the road, and headed back south.

A lovely TN sunset
BreyerFest passed in a sleep deprived blur, but I do at least have some pictures to share on my next post. I will try not to take a month to post it!