Copies of Schoenhut elephantsBy

Copies of Schoenhut elephants

The A. Schoenhut Company of Philadelphia begin manufacturing toys in 1872. In 1903 they introduced their perhaps their most famous creation, the Humpty Dumpty Circus. The circus consisted of animals and human figures made of jointed wood and various accessories such as barrels, stands, ladders and tents. The handmade animal and human figures are of interest not only as toys, but are also collected as examples of American folk art.

Schoenhut circus figures have been copied and reproduced since 1950. The first copies were made in America under a license negotiated with the original Schoenhut company. Later reproductions, though, have been made overseas and simply copy the vintage figures; they have no direct association with the original Schoenhut company.

The most reproduced piece is one of the largest circus animals, the elephant. New 10-inch long, 6½-inch tall elephants have been sold by Schylling Toys. Wholesale price for the new elephants was $14 each. Comparable originals sell for $225-$450 depending on the specific production period.

There were several different series of original Schoenhut circus figures. The first figures were made with glass eyes. When the supply of glass eyes from Germany was cut off during World War I, the company switched to painted eyes around 1918.

In 1923, Schoenhut began offering smaller figures, about 40% to 60% the size of the first pieces. These smaller pieces are called "reduced" figures. Miniature sized sets of figures were made in 1927. Struggling to cut costs in the depression of the 1930s, Schoenhut began using decals for eyes on some figures. Continuing economic problems forced the company to close in 1935.

In 1950, Nelson Delavan purchased the rights to the Humpty Dumpty Circus name and figure designs. New pieces were made for about two years and are collectible in their own right. An unlicensed set of circus figures was also made in 1976 by B. Shackman Co. of New York. That set, made in Taiwan, is very different from original figures.

You can separate original elephants from the reproductions with the checklist below. Keep in mind, though, that this list is for the elephant figure only and covers only the mass-produced copies. Deliberately hidden repairs and concealed restorations made to original figures are a separate problem.

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Fig. 1 Perhaps the most popular feature of original circus figures was their unique poseable joints. Once the center of gravity was found, multiple figures could be arranged in lifelike action poses. The illustration shown here with the original elephant appeared in the 1918 catalog. Detailed instructions like this allowed children to arrange complete "acts" for their play circus. The clown, barrel, ladder and chairs were among the many other original figures and accessories available.

Checklist for dating elephants

Original regular size elephant, ca. 1903-1935

*glass eyes or painted eyes (if painted eyes, look for dark "eyebrow" at top of eye; most typical painted eyes had at least three colors of paint– the white of the eye, a colored iris, and a black pupil; some original painted eyes have more than three colors of paint.

*jointed legs with jointed feet

*tips of trunk are hard rubber, inside tip of trunk is concave (bowl-shaped)

*tails are made of twisted twine painted the same color as the body of the elephant

*ears are leather

Delavan elephant, ca. 1950

*Delavan elephants are made in the reduced size, not the full size

*Delavan elephants can be separated from original reduced size Schoenhut elephants by looking at the legs. Delavan elephants have jointed feet; original reduced size elephants do not have jointed feet

Shackman elephant, ca. 1976

*has wrinkles and toes carved into the legs and feet

*leg and feet are one piece, not jointed

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Fig. 2-A Shackman one piece leg and foot with wrinkles and toes. No joint in the foot.

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Fig. 2-B Original full sized leg and foot are made of two jointed pieces. Smooth skin, no toes or wrinkles.

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Fig. 3 Schoenhut lookalike elephant sold by B. Shackman Co., ca. 1976. Sold in a boxed set sold under the name Humpty Dumpty Circus, the same name Schoenhut used.

Schylling elephant, 2003

*plastic, not leather ears

*tip of trunk is wood, not rubber

*eyes are only two color, black and white, with no "eyebrow"

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Fig. 4-A New Schylling painted eye is only two colors, black and white. No "eyebrow."

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Fig. 4-B Typical pre-1935 painted eye is made with at least three colors. The white of the eye A, a colored iris B and a black pupil C. Most painted eyes also have a single dark "eyebrow" above the eye.