The family firm of J. K. Farnell & Co. Ltd. occupies a position of unparalleled importance in British soft toy history, firstly because it was the very first British toy company to manufacture teddy bears, and also because it created the actual bear that inspired A. A. Milne to write the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Yet impressive as those facts undoubtedly are, they comprise just a small fraction of the fascinating Farnell story.
Founded in the nineteenth century, for decades J. K. Farnell & Co. Ltd. was the most respected and influential soft toy manufacturer in Britain. Thanks to the superior quality of its products, the company experienced enormous commercial success at national and international levels—even in Germany, home to its biggest rival.
Surviving economic depression, devastating fire, the ravages of World War II, and other traumatic events, the company kept going until fundamental changes in the British toy market forced its closure in 1970. Since then, the Farnell name has been forgotten by all but a dedicated band of teddy bear enthusiasts and the true story of this pioneering British firm has fallen into obscurity. Now, thanks to Kathy Martin’s intensive research, the facts about J. K. Farnell & Co. Ltd. and its fabulous teddy bears are revealed in this informative and entertaining book.
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Life Before Teddy
So familiar and well loved is the teddy bear that it sometimes seems as if it has always been with us, bringing comfort and joy to children of all ages. Yet the truth is that compared with other traditional childhood favourites such as dolls, toy soldiers, balls, hoops and wooden arks, the teddy is a relative newcomer, having first appeared in the early years of the twentieth century. Even the teddy bear's forerunner, the soft toy animal, did not exist until the latter part of the nineteenth century and neither, for that matter, did the British toy industry itself, at least as we know it today. While other countries, notably Germany and France, were well known for their toy production, for various reasons Britain's toy producers kept a much lower profile, only emerging as a force to be reckoned with at roughly the same time that the soft toy was insinuating itself into the nation's nurseries.
In order to understand properly the role played by soft toys and teddies, it is necessary to look back to a time before they existed. Centuries ago, a 'toy' was not necessarily a children's plaything; instead, the word was understood to describe small, amusing or decorative objects that were created primarily for the enjoyment of adults, although by their very nature these objects would also have delighted any child that saw them. Popular 'toys' of this type were porcelain boxes, miniature figurines and dolls' houses, which were known at the time as 'baby' houses and were a great favourite with the aristocracy. Then, in the eighteenth century, the word became associated with the small silver items created by the Birmingham silver makers – snuff boxes, scent bottles, card cases, buckles, buttons and so on. These 'toys' were also intended for adults, but once again, because of their decorative nature, many were equally pleasing to children. Gradually, little by little, the word toy came to be applied to items specifically of interest to youngsters.
Of course it would be quite wrong to suggest that while the adults were busily admiring their finely painted porcelain boxes or arranging the furniture in their baby houses the children of the time were twiddling their thumbs for lack of anything to play with. They did have toys of their own, although for all but the richest these would have been homemade. Indeed, for the working classes, childhood as a concept did not really exist – babies were born and as soon as they were old enough to be useful they were put to work. For these children, playtime would have been an uncertain luxury, snatched whenever possible between working hours, and whatever toys they possessed would have been fashioned from rags, bits of wood and other odds and ends. This situation started to change towards the end of the eighteenth century when workers skilled in other specialised fields such as glass and watch making turned their attention to the children's toy market. Many of these new toy makers worked independently from home, buying the raw materials they needed out of the proceeds made from selling their last batch of toys. Their wares were necessarily cheap because they were bought by people like themselves with little disposable income. As a result, for most of these cottage industry toy makers it was a hand-to-mouth existence in which a period of low productivity would see the entire family go hungry. Even for workers employed by small toy manufacturing companies, conditions could be little better – wages were low and job security nonexistent. Children were often employed making toys, particularly miniature or fiddly items, because their fingers were small and nimble and, of course, they were cheaper than adult workers.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, toyshops were usually found only in the larger towns and cities. Even here, many toys were purchased from street vendors – often the wives or children of the men who made the toys – and in smaller towns and rural areas toys were sold by stationers, haberdashers and Post Offices, all of whom kept a few inexpensive but enticing items on their shelves in the hope of persuading a fond parent to part with a penny or two. In London, a popular location for toy buying was Lowther's Arcade, a glorious, glass-covered bazaar stretching from St Martin's church to the Strand. As early as 1859, the arcade was able to excite the writer George Augustus Sala, who described it as 'the toyshop of Europe'. He waxed lyrical about 'the honest, hearty, well-meaning toys of old England' while dismissing German toys as 'somewhat quaint, and somewhat eccentric' and French ones as fierce and warlike, 'smelling of Young France, and glory, and blood'. Lowther's Arcade was famous in its day – literary luminaries such as Arthur Conan Doyle and J M Barrie (creators respectively of Sherlock Holmes and Peter Pan) mentioned it in their books and W S Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame co-wrote a pantomime, Hush-a-Bye, Baby, on the Tree Top, which was sub-titled Harlequin Fortunia, King Frog of Frog Island, and the Magic Toys of Lowther Arcade. From the contemporary accounts, it seems to have been a busy, bustling, magical place that sold everything from cheap and cheerful mass-produced items to the finest dolls and toys money could buy.
Things changed in the last decades of the nineteenth century with the rise of the department store. In these magnificent temples of commerce, toy manufacturers found a welcome new outlet for their products, although to begin with the stores did not have dedicated toy departments, preferring to sell toys seasonally. Thus, during the run up to Christmas they would be stocked with all the latest games, dolls and so on, but at other times they would offer little in the way of toys.
Sala's comments concerning the difference between English, German and French toys are interesting because they highlight the fact that, contrary to widely held belief, British toys were being manufactured at this time, even if a great many were originating from cottage industry-type setups. It is often alleged that the British toy industry only became firmly established following the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 but Sala's glowing descriptions of English-made horses on wheels, 'bravely painted' millers' carts, carriers' carts, block-tin omnibuses, deal locomotives 'with woolly steam rushing from the funnels', brewer's drays, Noah's arks and many other items prove that toys of a certain type were being produced in Britain long before the start of the Great War. It is also widely documented elsewhere that a number of firms based in the Midlands made some wonderful tin plate items, notably Evans & Cartwright of Wolverhampton. However, the closest Sala comes to describing a soft toy is when he mentions 'noble fluffy donkeys, with real fur', laden with panniers and harnessed with soft brown leather. Although this may sound like the description of a cuddly toy donkey, in reality it would have been a floor-standing toy, more akin to a rocking horse (albeit without the rockers) than a soft toy. The truth is that before the 1870s the only commercially produced toys with any resemblance to soft toys were furcovered animal automatons created by firms such as Roullet et Décamps of France. Thanks to their prevalence in European folk tales, bears were a popular subject for these wonderful mechanical toys, but they were almost always depicted as fierce rather than lovable, and in any case their delicate mechanisms rendered them unsuitable for hugging. These were toys to watch and wonder at, not to kiss and cuddle. It was to take, separately, an enterprising, disabled German woman and an ambitious Englishman with a large family to provide for to introduce the concept of a soft stuffed animal toy that existed purely for the pleasure of holding it.
A young German woman called Margarete Steiff is the person most commonly acknowledged as the originator of the commercially produced soft toy animal. Although she suffered partial paralysis having contracted polio in infancy, Margarete refused to let her disability define her life and, thanks to her flair with a sewing machine, she was able to found a toy-making company of global renown. Initially, Margarete worked as a dressmaker, but in 1879 she was inspired to adapt a magazine pattern for a fabric elephant cushion. Ignoring the printed instructions, she altered the pattern to create a little elephant made from felt. She called her creation 'Elefäntle' and gave it to her sister-in-law, Anna. Other female relatives admired the little elephant so Margarete gradually made some more. They were supposed to be pin cushions but to children's eyes they looked like delightful playthings. Margarete's lightbulb moment came when she realised the children were right: her elephants were toys in their own right. Encouraged by this positive reaction, she started to experiment and added felt dogs, cats, horses, rabbits and pigs to the original elephant design. The more she made, the more people wanted them, and thus her legendary toy company was born. By 1892 the company had produced its first catalogue, which featured the laudable maxim 'Only the best is good enough for our children.' Another step forwards came in 1897 when the Steiff company booked a stand for the first time at the Leipzig Toy Fair, the toy industry's most important trade event. Unable to attend in person, Margarete arranged for a new employee to represent her company at this prestigious fair. The young man in question, fresh out of college having just completed his studies at the Stuttgart School of Art, was to play a seminal role in the future of Steiff. A favourite nephew of Margarete, his name was Richard Steiff, and his gift to the world was the teddy bear, arguably the best-loved toy of all time, soft or otherwise.
Created in 1902, Steiff's jointed, soft stuffed toy bear, which did not become universally known as the teddy bear until 1908, made its debut in Britain no later than 1906 when it was featured in that year's Harrods catalogue. However, some toy historians believe Harrods had been selling Steiff's soft toys since 1895, although sadly the store cannot substantiate this due to a lack of departmental records, and no soft toys of any description are featured in their 1895 catalogue.
While there is absolutely no doubt that Margarete Steiff was an inspirational woman or that her nephew, Richard, was a massively talented and innovative designer, it must be acknowledged that credit for inventing the teddy bear has been claimed by others. The best-known rival claim cites America's Ideal Novelty and Toy Co as the originators of the teddy bear. In this account, a Brooklyn-based émigré couple called Morris and Rose Michtom made a jointed toy bear that they put in the window of their novelty store. It sold, further bears were made and sold, and ultimately a company – the Ideal Novelty and Toy Co – was born. Today the Michtom story is widely accepted as fact in the USA but elsewhere the majority of teddy bear enthusiasts believe the credit for making the first teddy bear, recognisable as we know it today, lies with Steiff, largely because the Steiff company has a great deal of supporting evidence in its archives. Weighing up the facts, it would seem that in one of those quirky coincidences with which history is littered, Steiff's jointed bear and the Michtom version appeared at roughly the same time, but the appearance of their bear toys was very different – although no picture exists, the Michtom bear is said to have resembled a rag doll, whereas photos of Bär 55 PB, the very first Steiff teddy bear, clearly identify it as the forerunner of the classic teddy bear we all know and love. Thus, Steiff's claim to have given the world the teddy bear would seem to be firmly established.
Before the teddy bear, however, came the soft toy animal, and thanks to the Steiff company's excellent habit of carefully preserving paperwork relating to its history, there is documentary evidence to support the story of Margarete Steiff and her felt elephant. However, I think there is reason to believe that J K Farnell & Co may have been producing a type of soft toy prior to 1879, the year in which Margarete created her first elephant. Admittedly this evidence (which is given in full in Chapter 2) is not conclusive but it does at least raise the tantalising possibility that J K Farnell & Co created one of the world's first commercially produced soft toy animals. However, it is important to keep in mind that Farnell's earliest products may have been made from animal fur rather than the felt and mohair plush later favoured by the soft toy industry. Even so, since soft toys rapidly assumed a key place in British toy manufacturing – by 1924 the combined value of British-produced dolls and soft toys was higher than any other toy product, with mechanical metal toys coming a close second – the significance of Farnell as a trail-blazer is obvious. Interestingly, just as Steiff are believed to have supplied Harrods with soft toys from as early as 1895, at least one source suggests that Farnell were also supplying the store long before they made their first teddy bear. Writing in the magazine Bear Collector in 1997, Tony Ridgewell asserts that prior to 1910, when the company's teddy bears first appeared in the Harrods catalogue, J K Farnell was 'already a long established supplier of soft toy animals and dolls to the London store'. Sadly, as with Steiff, this assertion cannot be confirmed or refuted by Harrods, but when looking for a British manufacturer of the new jointed teddy bear it would have been logical for the store to choose a firm with which it had an established relationship. Furthermore, there is no doubt that Farnell maintained its prominent position in the face of stiff competition from rival British firms that jumped on the soft toy bandwagon in the early years of the twentieth century. Games and Toys, the leading trade journal for the British toy industry, made no bones about its opinion that Farnell was the market leader, regularly describing the firm as 'occupying a premier position in soft toy production' or variations on that theme.
The importance of the soft toy can be summarised thus: it paved the way for the invention of the teddy bear and was instrumental in developing a new industry that was to provide employment for thousands worldwide over the next few decades, and indeed still does so today. Farnell was a major player in the infancy of this significant industry, and although the company has not survived to the present day, its legacy certainly has.
Muddying the waters
An article that was published in Games and Toys in June 1954 could be the source of some of the most frequently repeated 'facts' concerning the Farnell company. This is regrettable since, although it is interesting, the article is flawed and it contains at least one extraordinary assertion that cannot help but cast doubt on the credibility of the whole. Written by Mr H E Bryant, at that time a director of Dean's Rag Book Co Ltd and Chairman of the British Toy Manufacturers Association, the article was published on the occasion of the fortieth 'birthday' of Games and Toys. Concerning Farnell, Mr Bryant's assertion that 'as far back as 1897, the late Mr J. K. Farnell was producing high class soft toys which were distributed the world over' is clearly false because by 1897 Joseph Kirby Farnell had already been dead for six years. This is nothing, however, in comparison with the astonishing statement Mr Bryant makes about the invention of the teddy bear. In his version of events, a (conveniently) un-named Englishman invented the concept of the teddy bear and then offered it to Margaret [sic] Steiff, who 'immediately saw the possibilities of such a production in England'. In short, Mr Bryant completely rewrites the history of the invention of the teddy bear. It is surely enough to have Richard Steiff and the Michtoms spinning in their graves.
Naming the teddy bear
The term 'teddy bear' comes from the nickname of US President Theodore Roosevelt. In November 1902, Roosevelt – known affectionately as Teddy to his friends and supporters – set off on a trip to help settle a border dispute between the states of Louisiana and Mississippi. As the president was known to be keen on hunting his hosts arranged a well-publicised bear hunt during his stay, but when the local bears made themselves inconveniently scarce it looked as if the excursion was going to fail in full view of the nation's press. The President was not best pleased and so in desperation the locals sought to rectify things by capturing an old, infirm bear, which they tied to a tree. Roosevelt was then invited to shoot the pitiful creature but he declined to do so, declaring that he drew the line at such antics. (All the same the bear was killed, by knife rather than by gun.)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Farnell Teddy Bears"
Copyright © 2010 Kathy Martin.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Teddy Bear Time Line,
Chapter 1 - Life Before Teddy,
Chapter 2 - Founding a Dynasty: J K Farnell & Co, a Family Affair,
Chapter 3 - Teddy Gets a Grip (1908 – 1921),
Chapter 4 - Perfection in Toys (1921 – 1930),
Chapter 5 - Achievement at the House of Farnell (1931 – 1940),
Chapter 6 - Everything Must Change (1940 – 1970),
Chapter 7 - The Other Farnells,
Chapter 8 - Favourite Farnells,
Chapter 9 - Collecting Farnell Teddy Bears,
Essential Farnell Directory,