Collecting Little Orphan Annie

Collectors enchanted by early comic characters struggle, oftentimes, to find items featuring their favorites.

To find toys based on "Polly and Her Pals" or "Little Jimmy," however popular those strips were in their day, must take some dedicated digging, and more than a little patience.

Not all early comic characters prove quite so frustrating in this regard, fortunately. Collectors inspired by Harold Gray’s Chicago Tribune strip "Little Orphan Annie" have a surprising range of items awaiting discovery, out in the wilds of Antiqueland.

The plenitude of Annie items came about for a number of reasons. Most importantly, she was one of those rare characters who found success in more than one medium.

Soon after her first success in newspapers, in the mid-1920s, Annie found herself featured in hardbound comic books. Once her appealing, bushy-haired image was fixed in the public’s eye, an unrelated medium picked her up, propelling her to unprecedented stardom for an orphan girl.

Annie Watch AT 4-23.jpgShe became a new sort of heroine for young listeners, as Radio Orphan Annie.

Events kept playing in Annie’s favor: for her audio adventures never would have become so firmly established in the imaginations of youngsters across the country without the involvement of a Chicago firm named The Wander Co.

In a relationship that would become famous, Wander’s tasty energy drink, Ovaltine, was the star product advertised in each installment of "Radio Orphan Annie."

Even for those children — and they were by far the majority, even in wealthy areas of the country — who owned only a few toys during their 1930s childhoods, youngsters had excellent prospects for putting their hands on Orphan Annie playthings, with the radio show’s Ovaltine premiums, rolling out one after another, ranging from decoder badges to miniature story books.

Some of the premiums had a certain utility, too, which made them welcome among those parents reluctant to indulge their children in too many silly toys. Ovaltine offerings included both ceramic and plastic mugs — expressly for drinking the beverage, of course. Two-piece shakers for mixing the drink appeared early, and kept appearing in a succession of new designs.

"Leapin’ Lizards! … a cold Ovaltine shake! It’s good tastin’ an’ good for you, too!" — as Annie says to her devoted, yellow-haired companion, Sandy the "Arf!" dog, on the side of one of these shakers.

This plasticware ranks among the most famous of Orphan Annie playthings, for good reason.

On the face of it, they are little different in nature from the plastic tumblers and plates molded in New Jersey in the 1980s bearing the images of those cheerfully blue dwarves, during the Smurf phenomenon of that decade. They are made of a plastic called Melmac — in Annie’s case bearing the tradename of Beetleware, made by the Plastics Division of the American Cyanimid Co. of New York City.

The toughness and shatter-proof qualities of the ureic plastic made it a natural for children’s use; and the Orphan Annie decals made children actively want to use them. They are striking for being among the earliest such toy dishes.

Because of the strong association between Melmac and the 1950s and later decades, many collectors fail to realize how many such items were made before the Boomers arrived. These Orphan Annie cups and mixers are not even from as late as the 1940s: for the first mixers were issued around 1930, and the first cups only a few years later. The cup you see here was a Beetleware design offered in radio-show 1935 promotions, then in magazine promotions later.

"An Orphan Annie mug for your child!" said McCall’s advertisements in 1937. "It encourages your child to drink Ovaltine. … This mug is regularly priced by us at 50 cents. By sending in the aluminum seal from under the lid of an Ovaltine can you can get one for 10 cents!"

Although responsible for many of the best-known Little Orphan Annie toys and games, the Wander Co. never entered into general toy-manufacturing activities. By the mid-1930s plenty of competition was to be found, in toy departments across the country — which may have helped keep Wander well within its Ovaltine province.

Some of the Annie toys of the 1930s were fairly standard offerings, for a comic character. There were cut-out paper dolls made by Samuel Gabriel Sons & Co., for instance, and embroidery and sewing sets from Jack Pressman & Co.

Others were a bit more elaborate. Milton Bradley Co., which made to-be-expected crayon and paint books based on the comic-strip and radio star, also made a Little Orphan Annie Shooting Game. Other toys included a metal Annie doll made by Louis Marx & Co., and electric ranges made by Metal Ware Corp.

Even one of the cast-iron-toy stalwarts, Freeport’s Arcade Mfg. Co., jumped on the comic-strip bandwagon with Little Orphan Annie jack sets.

More toys were to follow, as the 1930s rolled along. Pressman brought out bubble sets, George Borgfeldt Corp. brought out toy dishes, Goshen Mfg. Co. made girl-size ironing boards and jump ropes, all featuring Annie. Transogram Co. introduced Annie pastry sets, soon followed by Annie clothes pins and wash lines.

Dolls meanwhile started appearing from Mizpah Toy & Novelty Co., a specialist in felt dolls and toy animals. Miller Rubber Co.’s rubber toys included licensed Little Orphan Annie items, and undoubtedly included rubber Annie and Sandy dolls.

Accessories began appearing, too, as in the Little Orphan Annie Carrying Case made by Allied Mfg. Co., a Chicago firm that also made Annie "sand kits," likely similar to the Toy Tinkers’ drawing sets involving the creation of colored-sand pictures. Collegeville Flag & Mfg. Co., then one of the biggest names for masquerade supplies, started issuing Annie costumes.

annie5 AT 4-23.jpgAnnie on her soapbox, from inside Little Orphan Annie, 1926.

The toys kept appearing through the end of the decade, with Superior Type Co. stamp sets being the last major new toys to make their appearance. While such items as the shooting game, pastry sets and jack sets would keep appearing on toy shelves into the 1940s, the ’30s were the top time for Orphan Annie-ana. Afterwards, Annie’s role on the airwaves dwindled away; and Ovaltine turned its sponsorship to the more obviously heroic, although not a whit more adventuresome, Captain Midnight.

Little Orphan Annie remained a cultural force, however. The newspaper strips kept appearing well into the Boomer years; and even for the generation to follow that one, there was a brief movie phenomenon based on Harold Gray’s character. To everyone’s surprise, for a short time in the 1980s, the 1930s waif held her own quite well — even against the Smurfs.

That longevity is significant, of course. It means more than just one generation grew up treasuring Orphan Annie items …

And it means you are not the only one out there hoping to add to your collection.