|By Julie P. Robinson
Celluloid Santas hold a special place in the hearts of people who love vintage holiday toys. They are charming and whimsical, and their designs often reflect how Santa has evolved over the years. Collecting them can be interesting and fun, as they were mass produced in a wide variety of forms. Santa figures, roly polys, rattles, transportation toys, tree ornaments, candy containers and mechanical toys are all available. Some are plentiful and affordable, others illusive and costly. Finding any celluloid in mint condition is a challenge.
Old World folklore influenced the image of our modern day Santa and it is interesting to see this reflected in celluloid toys. Santa’s name can be directly traced to the Sinter Klass legend, which was brought to New York in the 17th century by Dutch settlers. In 1809, Washington Irving wrote the History of New York, and in it described the arrival of Sinter Klaas, on horseback, on the Eve of Saint Nicholas.
In reality, Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Smyrna, who lived during the 4th century. He was very rich and gave generously to the poor, often throwing gifts to impoverished children through open windows. Nicholas had a faithful servant named Knecht Ruprecht, who always carried a shepherd’s staff.
In 1823, Clement Moore wrote the poem, A Visit From Saint Nicholas. (The Night Before Christmas) Moore introduced a sleigh with reindeer, rather than a horse, as a mode of transportation. He also referred to St. Nick as a jolly old elf who filled children’s stockings with gifts, and came and went by means of the chimney. Moore’s reference to St. Nick laying a finger beside his nose was directly borrowed from Washington Irving’s writings.
In 1825, an artist named Moritz von Schwind introduced the German Weihnachtsmann, a rough mixture of Saint Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht, who wore a long beard and fur-trimmed mantle. He was also depicted carrying an evergreen tree.
Pelsnickle, which literally translates to “fur-Nicholas,” originated in Pfalz, the northwestern region of Germany. Pelznickel wears a long coat, boots, and a floppy hat. He carries a sack full of apples and nuts that he gives to children. Thomas Nast, the famous illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, was born in Pfalz. It is believed that he borrowed the fur trimmed suit and boots from Pelznicklel for his 1863 Christmas illustration of “The Jolly Old Elf” based on the poem Clement Moore wrote.
However, it was 20th century commercial advertising that contributed to the most recent changes in Santa’s appearance. In 1931, Haddon Sunbloom, an illustrator for Coca-Cola, portrayed a smiling, rotund, human-size Santa rather than an elf. His suit was altered and a pompom was added to his fur trimmed hat. Celluloid toys made during the 1940s and 50s often reflect this modern style.
Nobody knows for sure when the first celluloid Santa figures were produced, but an educated guess dates them to the early 20th century. Celluloid was invented in America in 1869, but didn’t enjoy widespread use in toys until the German firm Schildkrot, (turtle trademark) made the first commercially successful dolls in 1898.
By 1901, Dr. Paul Hunaeus of Hanover, Germany, was also producing celluloid toys. Hunaeus had a remarkable sense of design and his toys are highly desirable. St. Nicholas roly-polys bearing his trademark (PH, registered in 1901 and later outlined by a rhombus in 1909) can command up to $450. Hunaeus was absorbed by Schildkrot in 1930.
The onset of World War I was the catalyst for celluloid toy production in America. Viscoloid, a comb manufacturer in Leominster, Mass., seized the opportunity to corner a niche in the toy market when trade with European manufacturers ceased. They began in 1914, by hiring Paul Kramme, a German artist who had immigrated to the United States in 1903. Kramme’s toys reflected Old World traditions based on Weihnachtsmann and Pelsnickle. Highly collectible today, the serious looking St. Nicholas figures can be found in several sizes. They are dressed in a long red, hooded coat with fur trim, a sack slung over the back and holding a basket of fruit and nuts. Other Viscoloid toys sometimes show Santa with a cane – a symbolic representation of the crooked staff of Knecht Ruprecht.
Many Viscoloid toys reflect the influence of Clement Moore’s famous poem The Night Before Christmas. In these, Santa is jolly and rotund. He is sometimes paired with reindeer, a sleigh, a Christmas tree and packages. Some toys feature Santa popping out of a chimney while others show him approaching the door of a house.
By the end of the war and the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, Santa entered the progressive age of modern transportation. He can be found driving an array of automobiles, engineering a train and riding in a variety of seven different colored Zeppelins.
By the mid 1920s, Viscoloid employeed 350 full-time workers in their toy making division. Their colorful, lightweight, affordable figural toys were incredibly successful in spite of being highly inflammable. Look for trademarks that feature an intertwined VCO or oval shaped Made In USA.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Viscoloid began selling off their toy molds to Irwin Cohn of Great American Plastics. Cohn had the mold trademarks altered to include a circle and banner logo and the word Irwin.
Throughout the early 1930s, Irwin used the same molds to produce toys in both celluloid and non-flammable cellulose acetate plastic. Collectors should be aware that acetate plastic toys are bright white or red, and often are marked “non-flamm.” They are much less collectible, and therefore less valuable, than genuine celluloid toys.
The heyday of Japanese celluloid production took place between the two world wars. Tokyo was the center for a multitude of small fabricating shops that mass produced thousands of toys for export. Because German and American designs were so popular with consumers, toys were often copied. Today, Japanese knockoffs, many of them unsigned, are still collectible in spite of the fact that they lack attention to detail and the finish work is sometimes sloppy.
Some Japanese firms produced fabulous toys. Sekiguchi (tri petal flower trademark) and Royal (fleur-de-lis trademark) made realistic and stylized reindeer up through 1957. Sato Sankichi, (trademark SS in rhombus) made a Santa figure holding a lantern in one hand and waving with the other; these came in seven sizes and were molded in peach celluloid, then decorated with red, white, black and silver paint.
Some of the most charming and best detailed Japanese toys came from the Ando Togoro workshop (crossed circle trademark). Santa driving a motorcycle is perhaps one of the most coveted of Togoro toys, commanding prices in the $250 range. Other desirable Togoro toys bear the likeness of a smiling Santa wearing a suit and hat fashioned after the 1930s imagery of Haddon Sunbloom.
During the Great Depression, celluloid toy production in America began to wane. Celluloid was highly inflammable and it fell out of favor with consumers. Modern, non-flammable plastics were being developed to replace it in toys. Japan, however continued to manufacture celluloid in great amounts – this due to the fact that one of the country’s greatest natural resources was camphor, an important ingredient in celluloid production. Toy export continued until World War II, and then resumed after the war and into the occupation years.