Wednesday, October 10, 2012

An Automaton ala Lothar Meggendorfer

by Stephen J. Gertz

An exceedingly scarce Schoenhut automaton, c. 1890-1900, in full working, unrestored and fine condition - with its original key, yet - featuring illustrated figures in a comic situation typical of movable book master Lothar Meggendorfer has come onto the market.

The scene depicts a tailor sitting at his table with his legs crossed, drowsily stitching a garment while nodding off. To the left, a rascal apprentice also sits at the table with his legs crossed stitching a garment. All of a sudden he sneezes and pricks his dozing master with a sewing needle while his companion apprentice looks on and stops ironing in anticipation of the stab. The tailor jerks awake at the pinprick, but soon dozes off again and the cycle begins anew.

Schoenhut automata have become insanely difficult to find;  I'm 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 mauled them.

Albert Schoenhut (1848-1912) was born into a toy-making from Wurtenberg, Germany; his father and grandfather made dolls, rocking horses, and wagons. As a boy Albert was a toy-making prodigy. His toy pianos were more than just, well, toys. They stayed in tune.

In 1866, a buyer for Wanamaker’s, the famous Philadelphia department store, heard about the wunderkind of Wurtenberg and hired the seventeen year old as a repairman of glass sounding pieces in German toy pianos that had been damaged in shipping en route to Philly.

In 1872, Schoenhut left Wanamaker's to establish the Schoenhut Piano Company on Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia. As his toy piano business prospered, 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, Schoenhut Piano Company was the largest toy company in the United States and the first in the U. S. to export toys to Germany; up until then it was the other way around. 140 years after its 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.

As a result, it is unknown whether Schoenhut copied existing Lothar Meggendorfer designs or had an employee finely imitate the great Meggendorfer's style.

[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. Schoenhut blue trademark label to rear.

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.

Videography by Dustin Jack and courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.
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