Curator’s Choice: Playing Old Maid with Hunca Munca and her Friends

When I was little, playing Old Maid with a specially designed set of cards beat a standard deck hands down.   The peculiar characters (caricatures, really) were much more satisfying than the bland flat faces of the kings, queens and jacks in the old Bicycle deck, with the cupids peddling for dear life on the red or blue backs…

It never occurred to me when my daughter was little to make her a unique deck of Old Maid cards, maybe because cards were not all that high on the list of fun things to do until Five Crowns came along.  Designing the twenty-odd pairs of characters would have a bit more than I was up to because repeated requests to draw the beautiful Chicken of the Sea mermaid strained by my artistic abilities were strained to the breaking point!

However, some children are lucky enough to know adults who draw well enough to craft toys and games for them.  Sometimes lucky curators are offered rare specimens that survived against the odds.  This little set of Schwarzer Peter cards is just one such find.  “Schwarzer Peter”—that is, “Black Peter”–is the name that Old Maid goes by in German, Danish, Swedish, Hungarian, and Finnish.  The card with Black Peter is the hot potato that all the players try to get rid of as quickly as possible so it won’t be in their hand at the end of the game.  In this particular set, the Black Peter is depicted offensively as a black rag doll instead of the more usual chimney sweep.

inprocess item 6541473

inprocess item 6541473

The set has twenty-seven, not fifty-two cards, and seems to be complete because it fits perfectly in the blue box with the illustrated title label that reads in translation: “This game of Black Peter was painted for her dear friends Ernst and Anneliese Grossenbacher in St. Gall.”  It is signed Gertrud Lendorff, who just might be the Swiss art historian from Basel (1900-1981). The title label depicts a black baby doll and Lendorff’s model might have been a Heubach bisque character doll.  She redrew the same doll on the card with the caption “Der Schwarze Peterli! Nicht der Schwarze Peter!” [The little Black Peter! Not the Black Peter!].  It is an opprobrious caricature with unnaturally bright red lips.  But unlike some Heubach black baby dolls, it wears what looks like a knitted onesie instead of some spurious form of “native dress.”


The cards cannot be earlier than the 1930s: the pair with the Union Jack in the upper left hand corners consist of Pamela and “Margaret Rose aus England.”  Margaret Rose is a little girl in a blue coat and hat with a green scarf, who must be the late Princess Margaret (1930-2002), Queen Elizabeth II’s sister.


For the most part, the cards depict all kinds of toys made of porcelain, clay, celluloid, and wood, such as Hansli and the matryoshka doll Tatyiana and her five daughters shown below.


A famous character from children’s books also makes an appearance here: Beatrix Potter’s Hunca Munca from The Tale of Two Bad Mice, identified only as “nach einem Englischen Kinderbuch,” that is, “from an English children’s book.”  It’s amusing that the illustrations of Hunca Munca Lendorff redrew are the ones where this bad little mouse was behaving well relatively well.

Were the little Grossenbachers for whom Lendorff made the cards reading The Tale of Two Bad Mice in German translation?  Or was Lendorff introducing them to a childhood favorite of hers? The cards don’t provide any clues about the circumstances in which they were made or how they were received, but they are testimony to Potter’s appeal outside her homeland.

swiss cards_cover





The Romance of Rumples Rig Railwayman

Front cover

Front cover

A pleasant little amateur manuscript has arrived from England (item no. 6814899). As the cover indicates, this piece was probably created as a Christmas gift for Cecil by his father in 1921. Cecil, we can guess, must have been quite young considering the picture book format of the work. Although it’s immediately recognizable that the author is an amateur story teller and bookmaker, these qualities only add to the item’s charm.

It’s a funny story, involving chance encounters, romance, and upward mobility. The manuscript is bound, colored, and written by hand.  If you look closely, you can see that the author first wrote in pencil and then traced his own hand (varying often) in black ink.  Most impressively, there are 21 humorous and talented illustrations (including the cover, title-page, and 19 leaves) each one painstakingly hand colored with watercolor and ink.

With the scene set, let’s let the work speak for itself:






Cute story right?

But there’s one other interesting and mysterious feature of the manuscript. It’s bookplate:

bookplatePasted into the inside front cover facing the title page, this bookplate answers some questions about the history of this manuscript and raises a few more.  After a little bit of research I was able to piece together that the acronym stands for Great Western Railway and that Wargrave refers to a village in Berkshire county, southeast England. The now defunct G.W.R. (founded 1833, nationalized at the end of 1947, becoming part of the Western Region of British Railways) opened a railway station in the small town of Wargrave in 1900.  Though the platform still remains today, The station building was demolished in 1988.

At some point between 1921 and 1947, Cecil or someone he knew must have given the manuscript over to the station (though it’s still unclear what kind of library the station might have had if it even had one).

So why would Wargrave train station have this item?

It might be more than just its train centered theme.  If you look closely at the second page (the first illustration after the title-page), you can just make out “GWR” written at the top of one of the papers on Rumples’ office wall. I think it’s safe for us to assume that this close affinity with and knowledge of the GWR (and the railroad goods office in general) probably points to this story being somewhat autobiographical. This, at least, would explain why the author’s family would want to donate the item to the station.

My flimsy guess is that the author himself probably worked in the goods office at Wargrave station. At some point, he must have fantasized about kicking his boss in the bum, getting a boat and a bike, and providing a better home for his children (not uncommon fantasies I’m sure).  At the very least, a talented and doting father created a fantastic gift for his son Cecil during the Christmas of 1921.  Now, 93 years later, we are pleased to have had the manuscript journey through many hands and across the pond to us.