On the Toy Trail: Uncle Wiggily Longears!

Of all the old-time storybook characters, this dapper gentleman rabbit, with his top hat, coattails and button-up vest, remains one of the most familiar to us, here in the 2000s. Storybooks featured plenty of other wildlife characters beloved of children, back in the early parts of the 20th century; yet few had Uncle Wiggily’s ability to keep hopping down through the decades, right down to our present day.

Many collectors know the old rabbit gentleman from board games, for they reliably show up in antique stores and garage sales. Those games will keep showing up for years to come, too, thanks to recent reissues designed to attract both nostalgic adults and a new generation of game-playing children.

The longevity of the game is due in part to the longevity of its parent company — for it was the Milton Bradley Co. of Springfield, Mass., that brought out the first “Uncle Wiggily Game” in the late 1910s, followed by “Uncle Wiggily’s Airplane Game” in the 1920s; and Bradley kept publishing both titles into the ’30s.

That magical combination of a handsome animal star and an exciting aircraft theme was a powerful one, although it was the basic “Uncle Wiggily Game” that would have staying power later in the century, with a new version for postwar children — the first of several — appearing in 1949.

So strong is the Milton Bradley and Uncle Wiggily connection that people may well think the gentleman rabbit was the creation of the Massachusetts game company. It is there we see his face most frequently, after all. Had that been the case, though, then Bradley would have been the source of the various other pre-World War II playthings as well.

 Yet while Milton Bradley was well-known for its paints and crayons, the “Uncle Wiggily” paint and crayon boxes were produced by a competitor, Binney & Smith Co. – famous even in the 1930s for its “Crayola” brand.

And while Bradley also issued paper-based toys other than games, it was yet another company, Charles E. Graham & Co., of Newark, N.J., that released the Uncle Wiggily Put-Together Books, as well as picture books.

Rubber toys being outside Bradley’s purview, it should come as no surprise that it was one of the many Ohio manufacturers of flexible playthings, Eagle Rubber Co., of Ashland, that made the Uncle Wiggily balloons.

Many of these and other Uncle Wiggily items prove elusive for collectors. Most were designed to be actively cut apart, as in the case of the Put-Together books — or blown up one day and burst the next, as with the balloons. They simply were not apt to survive. And as to the Uncle Wiggily costumes made by Collegeville Flag & Mfg. Co. in the later 1930s – most of us can remember from childhood how many wearings a costume usually lasts.

Yet a few Uncle Wiggily items survived in relative abundance.

“You know when Uncle Wiggily Longears, the old rabbit gentleman, started out to look for his fortune, he had to travel many weary miles — and many adventures happened to him!”

So begins one of the many Uncle Wiggily books to be found occasionally in used-book stores and antique shops, usually in well-thumbed form: Uncle Wiggily’s Travels.

The fact most collectors are familiar with the sight of Uncle Wiggly hardbound books and pamphlet-like collections of tales is for good reason. From the 1910s onward a surprising variety of editions appeared.

A publisher of inexpensive hardbound volumes, A.L. Burt, was an early source of Uncle Wiggily books, from the early 1910s. Other early editions appeared from one of New York City’s most important children’s publishers, The Platt & Munk Co.

Whitman Publishing of Racine, Wis., and Chicago’s M.A. Donohue & Co. were also in the Uncle Wiggily business at various times from the 1910s through the 1940s.

Some of the most attractive of these are the small, numbered series produced by Whitman in the 1930s and 1940s, with such titles as Uncle Wiggily’s Auto Sled and Uncle Wiggily and His Flying Rug. Slender and saddle-stapled, their attractive covers make them favorites among Wiggily collectors.

Although finding a few such Uncle Wiggily items is by no means unusual, for those of us out looking for such things on the antiques trail, making anything approaching a complete collection is surprisingly difficult — perhaps even impossible!
Besides the issue of the unlikely preservation of ephemeral materials, as is the case with the balloons and costumes, the sheer variety of paper materials is enough to daunt the most devoted completist.

Howard Garis was a Newark, N.J., newspaperman when he began writing his rabbit-gentleman stories in 1910. He remained loyal to the Newark Evening News during all his lengthy career, and had the good sense to keep producing his animal stories on a regular basis.

Those regularly-produced stories added up impressively. One calculation has it that Garis ended up writing about twelve thousand Uncle Wiggily stories.

Given that some stories appeared in syndication around the country, the number of individual newspaper appearances for Uncle Wiggily must have been astronomical!

Howard Garis was remarkably prolific. Those who peruse the spines of old books will spot his name fairly frequently – and often not in connection with the Uncle Wiggily series. He wrote others, including the Curlytops, Rick and Ruddy, and Happy Home series. Another was the Daddy series, with titles such as Daddy Takes Us Fishing, Daddy Takes Us Hunting Flowers, and so forth. Some of his stand-alone juvenile books drew upon his experience in the newspaper trade.

As if these series and miscellaneous books did not give enough associational items for collectors to scrounge for, Garis made matters complicated by writing under pennames.

Although Garis, who was born in 1873, lived until 1962, he apparently wrote the bulk of his juveniles in the period between 1905 and 1935.

Collectors of Garis’s greatest creation have troubles finding hardbound books with pristine cover art, as you may well imagine.

Other items prove nearly as elusive — such as the high-quality Uncle Wiggily dishes produced by the Sebring Pottery Co. in the 1920s. These white-glazed items feature an image of the handsome Uncle Wiggily prancing alongside a bespectacled Grandpa Goosey Gander. In the background is Uncle Wiggily’s house, fashioned from a tree stump.

Around the margins of the plates and bowls are assorted other charming characters from Garis’s stories, including Nurse Jane, Baby Bunty, and Jackie Bowwow.

The Sebring mugs, readers of my recent article here on Little Orphan Annie may be surprised to learn, were used in Ovaltine promotions around 1930. The Uncle Wiggily mugs were give-aways used in connection with the “Radio Orphan Annie” show.

A pair of hard-to-find toys may be the most sought-after of Uncle Wiggily items. Louis Marx & Co. made a one of its many Crazy Cars with the old rabbit as driver — using a design similar to that of its “Whoopee Car,” with large disc wheels on the rear axle.

Distler of Germany also made an Uncle Wiggily Crazy Car – a beautiful, high-quality plaything, 9 1/2 inches long, that today can fetch thousands of dollars when one appears at a major auction.

If nothing else does, that fact proves the point – that the old gentleman rabbit retains his charm even now, nearly a century after his birth. When he started out that sunny day in search of his fortune, he failed to realize that he could ask for no greater treasure to be no one else than he, Uncle Wiggily, himself.