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!



Hardy, G. F. (2007) Richter’s Anchor Stone Building Sets.

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

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

A “Twelve Days of Christmas” Chapbook

Among the traditional Christmas songs is “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a memory-and-forfeits game played by the fire that describes the staggering array of gifts bestowed upon one person.  The song has inspired many parodies, most of them too lame to stick in the mind, with the notable exception of Alan Sherman’s, with the diabolical substitution of  a “naked lady with a clock where her stomach ought to be” for the fifth day’s bling.  Then there’s P. D. Q. Bach’s “Twelve Days after Christmas” or Craig Courtney’s  “Musicological Journey Through ‘The Twelve Days’ of Christmas…'”

Upper wrapper of Pitt's "new edition" of the Twelve Days of Christmas (cover title)

Upper wrapper of Pitt’s “new edition” of the Twelve Days of Christmas (cover title)

Accumulative rhymes like “The Twelve Days of Christmas” were enjoyed in the days when people passed the time playing all kinds of complicated word and memory games.  While the Cotsen Children’s Library does not have a copy of Mirth without Mischief (London: Charles Sheppard, ca. 1780), where the rhyme made its first appearance in print, it has a delightful one issued ca. 1810 by of all people the disreputable printer James Pitts in the notoriously seedy Seven Dials district of London.

The Twelve Days of Christmas, Sung in King Pipin’s Hall  begins as usual, illustrated with fine large cut of the partridge in the pear tree.

The first day of Christmas My true love gave to me A partridge in a pear tree..

The first day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree..

But it does not conclude with the drummers drumming (the version of the text animated in the Jacquie Lawson e-card and circulated widely on web sites), but with the lords a-leaping, the earliest version cited by the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes.   Note that Jemmy Pitts’s cut of the twelve lords shows them pole vaulting down a hill, instead of executing grand jetés,which is how they are frequently portrayed.

Woodcut of the twelve pole-vaulting lords

Woodcut of the twelve pole-vaulting lords

Be that as it may, at least Pitts adorned one page of his Twelve Days of Christmas with a fine cut of a couple kissing under a ball of mistletoe suspended from the ceiling that Joseph Crawhall might have been proud of.

Under the mistletoe...

Under the mistletoe…

Our inquiring readers may be wondering what King Pippin has to do with “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  This could be an allusion to the hero of The History of Little King Pippin (London: F. Newbery, 1775), who was king of the good boys and presumably had premises suitable for large-scale holiday entertaining!

Addenda on costing out the true love’s Christmas expenses

In 2012, the Huffington Post asked PNC Wealth Management to cost out the haul of the object of the true love’s affections and the numbers came to a hefty $107,000.  But that’s actually way below cost, as Iona and Peter Opie , authors of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, could have told the money men.   If they had read the rhyme carefully (close reading is a skill everyone needs), they would have realized the mistake in basing the estimate on the last day’s worth of presents only.  The true love had to shell out for not one, but twelve partridges (1 x 12 days), 22 not two doves (2 x 11 days), 30, not three French hens (3 x 10 days) and so forth for a whopping total of 364 items instead of a Grinchy 78.