A quaint look into the German Toy Museum in Sonneberg, once the toy capital of the world
By Melissa Bryant
One can almost hear Julie Andrews humming ‘My Favorite Things’: Model steam engines and papier-mâché figures…bright-colored peep shows and dolls made of biscuit… miniature soldiers ready for battle – these are a few of the 5,000 most precious things… on display at the Deutsche Spielzeugmuseum (German Toy Museum) in Sonneberg.
Much simpler, materialistically speaking, than the high-tech gadgets likely awaiting children in your family this holiday season, Germany’s oldest specialized toy collection is a tangible reminder of man’s ingenuity and a living legacy of a town once considered the toy capital of the world.
“The importance of toys is far more than just a commodity,” said Dr. Reinhild Schneider, the museum’s curator/director. “They hold an imprint of their respective times and cultural areas.”
The Toy Story Begins
Historical accounts place the origins of Sonneberg’s toy-making industry in the late Middle Ages. Merchants from Nuremberg, a city in northern Bavaria, traveled a route near Sonneberg, over the crest of the Thuringian Forest, transporting “Nuremberg goods” (including toys), to fellow trade city Leipzig. Before making their trek over the mountain range, the merchants would change escorts and rest. Through this interchange, similar products began being produced in Sonneberg.
By 1735, for the first time, a description of the city noted “all kinds of children’s goods”— swords, pistols, shotguns, pipes, violins, bowling games, nutcrackers, rattles, cuckoos “and the like more”— next to commodities of wood. Around 1740, toymakers developed a more attractive material for their merchandise using black flour and glue water. This doughy substance allowed craftsmen to freely form figures or mold parts. Though this new method of toy production allowed for greater diversity, the delicate material had a limited shelf life and was often ingested by mice and mites during shipments overseas.
The remedy to this sticky situation arrived at the beginning of the 19th century, when brothers Johann Friedrich and Nicol Gottlieb Müller found papier-mâché to be an ideal alternative. Lightweight, cheap and flexible, this medium’s favorable properties made it easy to duplicate, ushering in a new era for the Sonneberg toy industry.
“In the second half of the 19th century, dolls took the first position among the Sonneberg products,” said Dr. Schneider. “With increasing export product requirements, the number of occupations involved in the production of toys increased: modelers designed models, papier-mâché workers made doll heads, painters designed doll faces, cutters and seamstresses sewed doll bodies made of leather or fabric [and so on].”
The Sonneberg toy industry experienced many highs and lows throughout history, from Heinrich Stier’s founding of the first doll factory in 1852 to its slow decline following the outbreak of WWI when toy-producing industries were established abroad. Eventually, the aftermath of German reunification in 1990 proved insurmountable for Sonneberg’s toy industry. Yet a new beginning was waiting just around the proverbial corner.
New Life for Old Toys
“Today, the German Toy Museum, founded in 1901, is the visible document for what was probably the largest toy metropolis ever,” said Dr. Schneider, who returned to her hometown of Sonneberg to teach at a specialized school for toy making during the last years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). She later established a gallery for contemporary art before taking the helm at the museum.
Each exhibit hall in the two-level museum follows a chronological order and boasts rare curiosities from nearly every part of the globe. The second floor is home to a menagerie of dolls, including the museum’s oldest exhibit—a terracotta doll’s head dating back to the 14th century BC—and what Dr. Schneider deems as “particularly impressive” dolls and cult objects from ancient Greece mostly made of clay or wood.
“For girls in ancient times,” she said, “the doll was both a playmate and a protective amulet. At marriage, the young woman sacrificed her dolls to the goddesses as a sign that adulthood is now beginning.”
The Real Showstopper
The central exhibit of the museum’s new extension is the “Thüringer Kirmes,” or Thuringian Fairground, which debuted at the 1910 Brussels World’s Fair. For this special exhibit, guests are seated in a dark room as a bellowing German voice sets the stage for this lively depiction of a typical regional rural festival around 1900. As the lights flicker on, the sights and sounds of the festivities come alive. Some 67 almost life-size figures complete the scene (see photo), everything from dressed dolls and painted papier-mâché clowns, vendors and townspeople, to a working carousel with wooden mounts.
“The exhibit’s designer Reinhard Möller chose the fairground theme to capture the products of the Sonneberg toy industry in pictures, and to use these pictures to promote the Sonneberg industry,” said Dr. Schneider. “Möller managed to give each industry of the Sonneberg toy industry its own scene in the overall picture.”
The preserved fairground ensemble features essentially all of the components of papier-mâché, wood and textile from the original piece, which received the coveted “Grand Prix” (Grand Prize) at the international showcase. According to a visitor’s report, the Queen of Belgium said the “Thuringian Fairground was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen in her life.” More than 100 years later, the scene promises to elicit such awestruck reactions for many decades to come.
By year’s end, the German Toy Museum plans to introduce audio guides in English with versions for both adults and children.