[Philadelphia]: Shoenhut, 1890. Item #02129
An Automaton After Meggendorfer
[AUTOMATON]. [“The Tailor and His Two Apprentices”]. [Philadelphia: Schoenhut, n.d. c. 1890-1900]
Boxed automaton. Image size: 11 1/2 x 15 1/2 inches; 293 x 395 mm. Box size: 13 5/8 x 17 5/8 x 5 1/8 inches; 345 x 447 x 130 mm. Three cardboard figures in original paper-covered wooden box, with glass cover and gold-painted metal frame. A sliding panel on the back of the box reveals cardboard parts moved by clockwork mechanisms, which can be wound up with the original metal key. Paper labels on box a little chipped. The figures are still very bright, and the mechanisms move very smoothly. An excellent example of an automaton from the period. Schoenhut blue trademark label to rear.
The scene depicts three figures in the style of Lothar Meggendorfer’s illustrations to his movable books. In the center, a tailor sits on a table with his legs crossed, drowsily stitching a garment, while nodding off. On his right, an apprentice also sits on the table with his legs crossed stitching a garment and, while sneezing, sticks a pin into his dozing master’s bottom. On his left, another apprentice looks on while ironing and stops in anticipation of the sneeze. The tailor jerks awake at the pinprick, but soon dozes off, and the whole cycle begins again.
Schoenhut automata (sometimes referred to as 'Clockwork Tableaux' or 'Living Pictures') have become scarce; we are aware of only one other coming into the marketplace within the last ten years. As might be easily imagined, automata for children did not endure their enthusiastic play any more than movable books easily survived the eager little hands that played with them.
A very similar automaton appears in Mary Hillier's Automata & mechanical Toys. An Illustrated History (Jupiter Books, 1976, pp. 96-97). It is referred to as a 'Clockwork tableau by Schoenhut, c. 1890. USA, collection of Mrs Margaret Whitton.' Prior to this the moveable toys of the nineteenth century used sand as the motive power and "a great number of these toys were made in Germany, especially when the colourful process of Chromo-lithography provided cheap, gay scenes. 'Do-it-yourself kits' were sold with instructions for making up the sand-hopper apparatus at the back. The idea seems to have been introduced into America about 1839, but superior models with a clockwork mechanism were marketed in the '70s by Albert Schoenhut… He tried out 'Living Pictures' with strong clockwork motion based on the old sand toys. The cut-outs were made of cardboard and the designs were somewhat amateurish, though droll in action." (Hillier pp.96-97).
"As popular late 19th- and early 20th-century toys, living pictures once entertained children of all ages with a blend of fine art, craft, and mass-produced clockwork. This type of simple automata, like its more sophisticated cousins usually found in wealthier homes, also functioned as a parlor decoration (an adult toy, if you will permit the expression) rather than a child’s plaything. Very young children, no doubt, needed supervision around these delicate clockwork toys with their sheet glass windows. Nevertheless, they fascinated everyone with their cleverness, humor, and connections to everyday tasks and experiences, illustrating Victorian values imaginatively in a miniaturized space." (Rick Sherrin. Playing with Living Pictures: Clockwork Tableaux).
Albert Schoenhut (1848-1912) was born in Wurtenberg, Germany to a toy-making family. His father and grandfather made wooden dolls, rocking horses, and wagons. At a young age, Albert began making toy pianos in his home. Albert's toy pianos, more than just playthings, stayed in tune and were accompanied by sheet music to encourage children to play.
In 1866, a buyer for Wanamaker’s department store heard of young Albert's talent and brought the seventeen year old to Philadelphia where he worked as a repairman on glass sounding pieces in German toy pianos that had been damaged in shipping.
In 1872, Shoenhut left Wanamaker's to establish the Schoenhut Piano Company on Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia. As his toy piano business grew, Shoenhut added other toy instruments to his line and expanded it to include dolls, circus figures, toys, and, as here, automata. By 1901, the firm had 125 employees making novelty toys.
By the time of Albert's death in 1912, Schoenhut Piano Company was the largest toy company in America and the first in the United States to export toys to Germany. 140 years after it's founding it is still active as a maker of toy pianos, though, after multiple changes in ownership since Schoenhut's death in 1912, its archives have been scattered and all records of their vintage automata are, alas, lost.