All I Want for Christmas is an Anchor Building Box!

Anchor block tower

The "Toy The Child Likes Best" really was as popular as advertised but probably not this useful for wooing.

The “Toy The Child Likes Best” really was as popular as advertised but probably not this useful for wooing.

From the 1880’s till the end of the First World War the title of this post would have been heard (politely asked, screamed, cried, or begged for) anywhere in the western world during the holidays.  Dr. Richter’s stone building sets were an immensely popular toy for children and hobby for adults.  According to Jerry Slocum and Dieter Gebhardt, authors of The Anchor Puzzle Book, “Richter’s stone building sets became one of the most popular toys of its time and one of Germany’s largest export products. . . Anchor Stone Building Sets were the best-known toy and were exported all over the world” (p.15).

Being that the holidays are right around the corner we thought that it would be appropriate to exhibit our sets of these once well-known toys and explain a little about their history (not to mention get the chance to show off our sweet block buildings skills).

Our 3 boxes, side by side to show scale

Our 3 boxes, side by side to show scale

big box

medium box

small box

The once famous Dr. Richter, while not really a doctor, was a savvy businessman.  Before he purchased his Doctorate in Chemistry from the nonexistent University of Philadelphia in 1875, he was already a wealthy and successful member of the German bourgeois.  Using his experience and capital gained as a druggist, Richter became a wholesome patent medicine manufacturer and distributor as well as a printer of textbooks (and self-promotional material). In 1877 he began building a state of the art factory outside of Rudolstadt, Thuringia (in central Germany) establishing a base of operations for all his business endeavors.

Ritcher used a variety of anchor devices as a trademark in order "to guard against the substitution of inferior imitations".

Ritcher used a variety of anchor devices as a trademark in order “to guard against the substitution of inferior imitations”.

The Anchor blocks come a few years later, in 1880, after Richter purchased the patent of the first ever “stone” building blocks from Gustav and Otto Lilienthal (who could not successfully market their invention like Richter could).  Richter preserved the original Lilienthal formula consisting of a combination of quartz sand, chalk, linseed oil, and dye. Richter’s stones came in three colors: red, white, and blue and some sets even included metal parts for making bridges.  The sets were sold in sizes ranging from the paltry Orion Set #0 with 17 stones, to the monstrous Great Fortress (Grosse Festung) with 9696 stones and weighing 375 lbs.

Our 3 sets are a sampling of the more commonly sized boxes.  We have a small set No. 1  (dated between 1906-1910) of 23 stones and 2 metal bridge parts, but we are missing the 2 metal clasps for the bridges.  We have a medium set No. 5 (dated between 1907-1910) of 94 stones with only 2 small white stones missing.  Last we have a large set No. 12 (dated 1884) of 180 stones with no stones missing. The numbering system for sets is quite complex becoming somewhat clearer and more sophisticated over time (later sets even involve a system of passwords for identification that, for the sake of brevity, I will not detail here).

Below are our 3 sets displaying the box arrangement for the stones, as detailed on the diagram provided on the underside of the lid, and each box’s inlaid instructional booklets:

set number 1

set number 5

set number 12

Solely for the sake of historical demonstration we mirthlessly assembled an example from one of the instructional booklets laid into each box:

2nd example on p.5 of Booklet No.1, perfectly executed.

bridge example

built bridge


2nd example on p.1 of the booklet for set No. 5 (we added an extra layer to the tower, borrowed from set No. 1, in order to impress you even more).

tower example

built tower

built tower


Example from p.32 of the booklet for set No. 8. (The other booklet laid in, specifically designed for set No. 12, is in preservation and couldn’t be used).  The architecture had to be modified slightly in order to accommodate for the block differences between sets No. 8 and 12.  The picture at the top of the page is from this set as well.

big tower example

big tower built


Given the popularity of these toys, and thus their lucrative dividends for Richter,  you might be surprised by their short-lived appearance on the toy market.  The downfall of Richter’s Anchor blocks, along with his Anchor Puzzles and other enterprises, was relatively swift.  World War I saw the demand for toys (especially demand for German toys in the American market) plummet.  War rationing meant that Richter could no longer procure the superior ingredients for his blocks, and the final Fortress sets (inspired, of course, by the war itself) were marred by inferior quality stone.

It might have been possible for the clever Richter to have weathered this misfortune and seen his company return to former glory.  But he never got the chance.  On a wholly sad and coincidental note, Richter died on December 25th, 1910, Christmas Day.  At the time of his death Richter was one of the wealthiest men in Germany.  Within 15 years his 4 sons squandered their inheritance and were unable to continue growing the company.  With business downsizing since Richter’s death and the set backs caused by World War II, the Soviet takeover of East Germany (including a full takeover of the Rudolstadt factory), and increasingly outdated equipment, Anchor block manufacturing finally ceased in 1963.

But it doesn’t end there!  Hobbyists and Collectors have been so enamored with Richter’s Anchor building blocks that the “Club of Anchor Friends” was founded in Amsterdam in 1979. With the support of the Club of Anchor Friends, the company was restored as Anker Steinbaukasten GmbH. Production at the factory in Rudolstadt restarted 15 September 1995.

So, if your still waiting to pick out that perfect gift for that block enthusiast you know . . . Look no further than Dr. Richter’s Anchor Building Box!  Just remember, if it doesn’t have the trademarked anchor, it’s a cheap no-good lascivious knock-off!

Happy Holidays!

 


References

Hardy, G. F. (2007) Richter’s Anchor Stone Building Sets.
http://www.ankerstein.ch/downloads/CVA/Book-PC.pdf

Slocum, J. (2012) The Anchor Puzzle Book. Beverly Hills: Slocum Puzzle Foundation.

http://www.ankerstein.org/html/CO.HTM

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anchor_Stone_Blocks

Items used from our collection, call numbers included:

The Toy The Child Likes Best! — 18647

Richter’s Anchor Box (small size, No. 1) — 34021

Richter’s Anchor Box (medium size, No. 5) — 5202

Richter’s Anchor Box (large size, No. 8) — item 6763049

Noah’s Art: Designing Arks for Children

Noah’s Ark Toys

For centuries the story of the flood in Genesis 6-9 has been an inspiration to toymakers. Thanks to the biblical connection, miniature arks are the best known of the so-called Sunday toys or quiet amusements appropriate for the Sabbath.

Noah's ark from l'arche de Noé (Paris:1880)

Noah’s ark from l’arche de Noé (Paris:1880)

Examples as early as the seventeenth century survive and famous German toymaker Georg Hieronymous Bestelmeier advertised elaborate, expensive sets in his enormous 1803 catalogue. During the nineteenth century the entry into the ark came into its own as a subject for high-end toys, novelty book formats, and nursery friezes.

The recently-opened Cotsen Gallery exhibition features two of Cotsen’s most spectacular arks–one a building toy, the other a panorama:

  • Le déluge universel: Construction de l’arche de Noé (Paris: Matenet, ca. 1880);
  • Lothar Meggandorfer’s Artist’s Dummy and Color Proofs for Arche Noah: Ein lehrreiches Bilderbuch (Esslingen: J. F. Schreiber, 1903).

These toys were displayed against two different backgrounds, reproductions of illustrations adapted from related children’s artwork:

  • Warwick Hutton’s Noah and the Great Flood (New York: Atheneum, 1977), a Margaret K. McElderry Book;
  • Peter Spier’s Caldecott Medal-winning Noah’s Ark (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1977).

Le déluge universel: Construction de l’arche de Noé (Paris: Matenet, ca. 1880).

Full set of l'arche de Noé:  the ark, stand-up figures and scenery, and illustrated box, with Hutton's artwork as background.

Full set of l’arche de Noé: the ark, stand-up figures and scenery, and illustrated box, with Hutton’s artwork as background.

This toy with its combination of pictorial blocks and stand-up figures, including animals, people, and background scenery, is something of a departure from the traditional ark with a removable roof or top deck that allows it to double as storage for the accompanying sets of paired animals.

Descriptive sign (shown next to the Ark in photo left), dating the Flood very precisely in 1536 BC.

Descriptive sign (shown next to the Ark in previous photo), dating the Flood very precisely in 1536 BC.

The design was not unique to Le déluge universel: there is a similar set representing the fall of Canton in 1858 during the second Opium War at the Getty Research Institute.

Lithographed box lid, with stand-up figures repeating some poses.

Lithographed box lid, with stand-up figures repeating some poses.

Like many elaborate late nineteenth-century French toys, a very showy illustration lithographed by the H. Jannin firm decorates the box lid.

Stand-up animals and background pieces.

Stand-up animals and background pieces.

This previously “hidden collections” item was “rediscovered” in 2011 when Cotsen’s toy collection was shifted into a new vault.

Lothar Meggandorfer’s, Artist’s dummy and color proofs for Arche Noah: Ein lehrreiches Bilderbuch (Esslingen: J. F. Schreiber, 1903).

Meggendorfer's dummy of the panorama, cardboard leaves hinged with fabric, measuring almost five feet long folded out fully  (Note: photo shown here composed of two separate photos, added together, creating the false effect if irregularity in the middle, not present in actual item).

Meggendorfer’s dummy of the panorama, cardboard leaves hinged with fabric, measuring almost five feet long folded out fully
(Note: photo shown here composed of two separate photos, added together, creating the false effect if irregularity in the middle, not present in actual item).

The German artist Lothar Meggendorfer is best known for his humorous mechanical book illustrations, but he also designed table games with playing boards and cards, as well as “theaters” in the round showing scenes in the city park, the zoo, or the circus, constructed of cardboard leaves hinged together with fabric.

Animals being herded onto the Ark, two-by-two, with one tiger looking quizzical and one horse perhaps having second thoughts?

Animals being herded onto the Ark, two-by-two, with one tiger looking quizzical and one horse perhaps having second thoughts?

Meggendorfer’s mock-up of this panorama depicting the animals’ stately progress into the ark shows his flair for large-scale scenic effects. It came from the publisher’s archive of Meggendorfer’s artwork, which was dispersed some years ago.

While most animals are depicted placidly, as per the usual description, Mrs. Lion looks none too pleased, a nicely humorous touch.

While most animals are depicted placidly, as per the usual description, Mrs. Lion looks none too pleased, a nicely humorous touch.

Gift of Justin G. Schiller in honor of the opening of the Cotsen Children’s Library in 1977

(Note: The text here is based on the exhibition labels by Andrea Immel, Cotsen Curator.)