Cotsen Research Reports: Stitching a Soviet Monkey

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Shimpanze i martychka: igroushki samodelki [Chimpanzee and marmoset: Toys to make yourself]. Leningrad: GIZ, 1930. (Cotsen in-process 7208283).

The project of Frances Saddington, a doctoral candidate in the University of East Anglia’s School of History,  was funded this year by Cotsen through the Friends of the Princeton University Research Grants program.   In August, Frances pored over dozens of pamphlets in Cotsen’s collection of Soviet children’s books.   One new acquisition caught her eye: an illustrated pamphlet with directions for making a toy chimpanzee and marmoset.  Being an artist and a scholar, Frances was the perfect person to test just how doable these projects really were.   Her delightful report follows.

During the 1920s and early 1930s in the Soviet Union, a great number of children’s picture books were printed. A distinct genre within this picture book world was the art and craft book. Both educational and enjoyable, these books provided imaginative and resourceful ways for children to create various objects. There were masks to cut out, colouring in books and instructions for how to print your own stencilled posters. ‘Self-made toys’ also featured prominently and these included stand-up paper figures, shadow puppet shows and potato men assembled from root vegetables and discarded household objects.

The self-made toy book held its worth in more ways than one. Any Soviet pedagogue would have been satisfied by the way it encouraged children to develop their construction skills, with practical abilities being a key attribute of the future Soviet worker. For children and families, self-made toys might have helped fill a childhood void in a country beset by material shortage, where consumer goods such as toys were hard to come by.

Bringing these long-lost ideas to life offers an irresistible challenge for the twenty-first century art and craft enthusiast. Soviet art and craft books are well represented in the Cotsen Collection and one of the most ambitious is Shimpanze i martyshka (Chimpanzee and Marmoset), published in 1930 by the Soviet state publishing house. It is a small book at only twelve pages long and just larger than a postcard. Inside it contains pattern pieces, instructions and diagrams for how to stitch the two cheerful creatures. I decided to make a marmoset and followed the instructions step-by step, which gave me some insight into the skills expected of Soviet youngsters and how feasible such a project really was.

At first glance the directions seemed quite straightforward but rather brief. They assumed some knowledge of sewing technique and a fairly high level of manual dexterity, so the first conclusion I drew was that this book was not intended for very small children. The monkey was to be made by building a wire skeleton, wrapping it in strips of newspaper and then enclosing the whole thing in fabric shapes before adding the features. The little monkeys jumping round the instruction pages were very endearing but they did not compensate for the fact that some of the required materials were missing from the list given at the beginning. I had to go off in search of glass beads, pieces of leather and something that would serve as red silk thread.

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The list of all you need (minus a few things) on page 2.

In slight defiance of the order of events given in the instructions, I decided to cut the pattern pieces for the monkey’s body before creating the skeleton. The instructions suggested that if I were to make the whole figure twice the size of the given templates, then it would be more comfortable to work with. I decided that this would be a good idea, as the pieces were very small. No instructions were given for enlarging the shapes and as I wanted to be authentic and not use a modern photocopier, I enlarged the pieces using a hand drawn grid. This took an hour and a half.

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The pattern pieces on page 8 on the left and Frances’s hand-drawn enlargements on the right.

Next I cut out the pieces. The instructions specified rags of brown flannel. These are not as easy to find now as in 1930, so I chose felt instead. After this I needed to make the skeleton and wrap it in strips of newspaper, tied down with thread. Working with the newspaper proved to be very time consuming, required a lot of patience and left me with very black hands. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any tiny monkeys like the ones shown in the illustration to help me. The trickiest part of this stage was figuring out how much newspaper to apply to the frame. Luckily, as I had cheated and already cut out the fabric body pieces, I was able to keep trying these against the figure to see if it was fat enough.

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Page 4 shows how to make the wire “skeleton” on the left. The cut-out pieces ready for stitching together on the right.

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The drawings on page 6 make the process of wrapping the wire with newspaper and thread look so beautifully tidy…

Finally, I added the features and after about five and half hours of work, the marmoset was finished. He looked almost exactly like the one in the illustration, turned out to be fully poseable without falling apart and was much more attractive than I had anticipated. He did however smell quite strongly of newspaper and I had doubts as to how long he would survive if handled excessively by a small child.

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The original illustration on page 9 and Frances’s finished creation.

Learn more about activity books at our virtual exhibition about Pere Castor

Curator’s Choice: Handmade Black Peter Cards with Hunca Munca and Princess Margaret

Some children are lucky enough to know an adult with the skills to make them special toys and games.  Sometimes those objects survive against the odds are offered to lucky curators. This little set of Schwarzer Peter cards (a Continental variation on Old Maid)  is just one such find.    It has twenty-seven instead of the usual fifty-two cards, but it seems to be complete because it fits perfectly in the blue box.  The lid has an illustrated title label in German that reads in English: “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 cards cannot be earlier than the 1930s: one of the pair with the Union Jack in the upper left hand corners shows “Margaret Rose aus England.”  Margaret Rose, a little girl in a blue coat and hat with a green scarf, must be the late Princess Margaret (1930-2002), Queen Elizabeth II’s sister.

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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  were redrawn from ones where this bad little mouse was behaving well relatively well.  My guess is that  little Grossenbachers for whom Lendorff made the cards might have been reading The Tale of Two Bad Mice in German translation.  But perhaps Lendorff was introducing them to a childhood favorite of her own. 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.

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Most of the cards illustrate toys made of porcelain, clay, celluloid, and wood, such as Hansli and the matryoshka doll Tatyiana and her five daughters below.

swiss_cards_babtanddollsOne thing we find unacceptable today is Lendorff’s inclusion of toys that perpetuate offensive stereotypes.  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.”

covertitle The “Schwarzer Peter”—that is, “Black Peter”–mentioned on the title label is the name that the Old Maid card 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 hands at the end of the game.  In this particular set, the Black Peter is depicted offensively as a black rag doll (possibly inspired by Florence Upton’s famous character, the Golliwog) instead of the more usual chimney sweep.

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The Black Peter card in the manuscript Schwarzer Peter deck. Cotsen in process item 6541473

In spite of the unpleasant images, this card set is a fascinating addition to Cotsen’s collection of manuscripts made for children over the last three hundred years..

See more Beatrix Potter at the Cotsen virtual exhibitions page