Vintage Santa dolls a sweet memory to baby boomers

A “golden age of toy Santas” came about when 78.3 million Baby Boomer children (born 1946-64) created an immense market for huggable, sturdy Santa toy dolls. About 100 toy companies in the United States, and 12 in Toronto, Canada, were busy making them. Of these companies, only Gund in the U.S. and Ganz in Canada still are in business.

During the Great Depression (1929-1941) the world didn’t have money for extras like fancy Christmas decorations – homemade goods ruled. World War II was a boon, in the fiscal sense, as it ended economic problems. Japan didn’t export much to the United States in the 1930s, and exported nothing in the 1940s until the American Occupation (Sept. 1945-April 1954). West Germany was occupied by the U.S. from 1945 to 1952, and items from both Japan and West Germany were marked “Occupied” in that period.

You can date Christmas collectibles by using the “Occupied” periods listed above. Additionally, during World War II, in 1943, a U.S. war “ZONE” code was added in larger U.S. cities to help mail distribution. War zones often became end numbers on zip codes issued in 1963.

Santa was a soothing character and a welcome respite after all the horrors of war. The postwar economic boom helped people lavish their large families with lots of toys at Christmas, instead of just a few things on the tree or in a stocking. The name-branded, licensed toys, starting with Barbie in 1959, came later. Santa had the field until the 1960s, when cheaper, less child-friendly, display-type dolls, drove out more expensive U.S. toys. For example, a new Japanese toy would retail for under $1, while a U.S.-made toy would retail for $3 or more.

The materials needed for these antique toys were not available until after World War II (1945) and during the war (1939-1945) all materials went to the war effort. Prior to the war, new dolls were primarily made of composition (glue, sawdust, paper) or featured mask faces made of stiffened fabric. Stuffing was often made of straw. “Mask” faces – cloth formed on a mold and stiffened with glue or starch – were also made during World War II and shortly after when rubber and plastic were rationed or in short supply. Boxed Santa suits and earlier costumes had masks of this type, too.

The mid 1950s produced several forms of about 24-inch sturdy Santa dolls, with very well engineered shapes easy to cuddle. Most famous of these is the Rushton Coke Santa from 1957, which is 17 inches tall. Examples of this doll can be found priced from $75 to $150 retail.

Assorted  24-inch dolls were made by My Toy, Columbia Toy, Loveable Toy, Bijou Toy and Doll Craft Novelty, in the U.S. and Ganz, Regal Toy, Mike’s Toy and Nicky’s Toy, in Canada. These Baby Boomer toys are made from fuzzy, plush fabric with outfits that are not removable. They were sturdy and held up to lots of play and love. They were also expensive, often costing roughly $10, this at a time when minimum wage was less than $1 per hour.

There are several clues to determine the quality of a midcentury plush doll. Faces with a lot of character lines, made of thick rubber or plastic cost more and required more detailed hand painting. These faces were made in injection molds by speciality rubber companies, which had to be bought by the toy companies. Hands and boots that were plastic or rubber increased the price. Separate belts/faux jacket bottoms and removable collars also show high quality. Quality dolls measure from 16 to 24 inches.

Cheaper, smaller size versions have plain faces, with hands and feet made of plush cloth. The hands are “mitts” — no finger shape and the feet have no shape for ankles. It was much faster — cheaper to just sew an extra piece of cloth at the end of arms or legs rather than add a separate formed hand or boot. Smaller sitting dolls were more affordable. The large standing guys (about $10) often came from grandparents.

The first post-war items Japan produced were very basic, mostly made of paper or cheap materials and produced in cottage industries, that is, made by families in their homes. These were exported to the United States in vast quantities for various uses.

Such items include small elf figures, many made with pine cones, as shown at right. The elves can be dated by the composition of the faces. In the box with examples of elves, the oldest two are on the left side; they are papiér mâché type with molded noses and features. They date to the 1920s, especially the one in the top left position. On the top right side is a “between” form; the face is crudely painted. The plastic Santa on the lower right, is the most recent; it dates to the late 1950s or early 1960s.

These whimsical figures were also used in holiday corsages and were intended to be thrown away after the season. They became popular in the 1920s and commonly found at church bazaars. The corsages would be handmade from a variety of items bought at the five-and-dime stores, where things really were 5 and 10 cents, sometimes going to 25 cents.

Later the makings of corsages were in craft catalogs such as Lee Wards into the 1970s. The throw-away corsages were  by Christmas pins made by the costume jewelers, such as Weiss & Coro in the 1960s, now highly collectible.

As Japan rebuilt and markets opened up, companies began making larger Santa dolls, still with few factory materials, most often just the faces and maybe boots. Black plastic boots are absent on the earlier Japanese-made Santa dolls. For a long time the dolls didn’t have real arms or hands. Most often the arm/hand appendage was made from a folded piece of newspaper and then covered with felt. These arms are quite flat, but give the impression of the real thing. Legs and feet could be made the same way.

The most interesting thing about this manufacturing technique is that if you are restoring (or cleaning) the figures, you can take out the newspaper and look for the date they were made.

Asian companies gradually introduced molded hands and boots. The molded faces were made in injection molds and are not something that small companies (or even larger ones like Columbia Toy) made themselves because molds are expensive and require specially trained workers. Almost all doll makers get these molded parts from specialty companies.

By the late 1960s, Japan was revived and began flooding the U.S. market with less-detailed Santa dolls.

At the same time, the large approximately 26-inch dolls made in the United States from the 1950s became smaller, measuring less than 20 inches. Many companies changed from molded hands to cloth mittens and plastic boots gave way to cloth boots.

Santa dolls made in the United States in the 1950s have expressive, detailed faces with lots of wrinkles and smile lines. Over time, faces lost their details to take on a more cartoon appearance. Dolls made overseas rarely have detailed faces. Any face that is fairly smooth, that is, doesn’t look like an old man (but is not meant to be a baby) tends to date to late 1960s to 1970s.

In all except a few of cases (large copies of Rushtons and 17-inch straw stuffed ones made by Morsly) the Japanese dolls were mostly around 10 inches tall. ?

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