Friday, March 13, 2015

Bright Eyed And Bushy Tailed Over This Fantastic - And Well Traveled - Vintage Squirrel

Can a picture paint a thousand words?  Yes, especially if its subject could be a vintage Steiff treasure!  A few years ago, author and illustrator Claudia McGehee contacted Steiffgal about a little toy squirrel that played a very big role in the life of one lucky young man at the turn of last century.  Her question was, given some line drawings from century-old diaries and memoirs, could an item be identified as Steiff?  This squirrel had emerged as an important element of the 1918 Alaskan adventure story she was researching and writing.  The "mystery squirrel" is pictured here on the left; the original artwork is from Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska, By Rockwell Kent Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1996.

Of course, Steiffgal goes nuts (in the best way possible) over these sorts of inquiries. Given the existing drawings, it appeared that the "mystery squirrel" could possibly be one of two Steiff models - either a gray and white mohair version, or a red-brown and white mohair version. Both of these squirrels were made from 1909 through 1919. The gray one was produced in 17, 22, and 28 cm. The red-brown one was produced in 17, 22, 28, and 35 cm. Both were six ways jointed - meaning that the head, arms, feet, and tail all could turn. Both originally came with a squeaker as well.  These squirrels are pictured to the left, the photos are from Pfeiffer's 1892-1943 Sortiment.  Although it is impossible to tell with 100% certainty if Claudia's mystery squirrel was indeed made by Steiff without seeing it firsthand, its appearance, dating, and origins all suggest that this is entirely possible. 

The squirrel in question plays a major role in Claudia's new work, My Wilderness, An Alaskan Adventure, which was published just a few weeks ago by Sasquatch Books. The book recounts the true-life story of New York artist Rockwell Kent II and his 9 year old son Rocky's adventures living, painting, and exploring all around Fox Island, Alaska in 1918.  The story is told through young Rocky's eyes, and is magnificently written and illustrated.  It is a must have for anyone who appreciates wonderful children's literature, the beauty of early frontier life, and, of course, Steiff! The book cover is pictured here on the left.

Steiffgal had the great pleasure of interviewing Claudia McGehee (who is pictured here on the left) about My Wilderness An Alaskan Adventure, and learning more about its "starring squirrel," Squirlie.  Here's a bit of that conversation.

Steiffgal: Tell us how you came across this tale of the Kent family and why you chose to share it in the form of a children's book.

Claudia McGehee:  Born in 1882, American artist Rockwell Kent II worked as a commercial illustrator, painter, writer and adventurer. I came across Kent’s book art and loved the qualities of his black and white engravings and drawings. I then saw an exhibition of Kent’s work in Chicago in 2001 and discovered his paintings were just as powerful. One painting intrigued me most; it was of a father and son, standing together outside a rustic log cabin. Was this the artist and his own son depicted here? I thought there had to be a good story behind it. 

And there was! Kent had published his memoir about living several months in 1918 on Fox Island, Alaska. His oldest son Rocky, had accompanied him. Kent excelled in painting cold northern landscapes. He also loved Big Nature. To paint in Alaska and to share a wilderness experience with his young son made the opportunity too good to pass up. It was a successful, happy time for the two; Rockwell Kent the artist produced many wonderful paintings while on Fox Island, and Rocky lived a childhood dream of exploring a wilderness island!

Soon after seeing the exhibit, I started thinking about what a lovely father-son adventure this was, and with my illustration style, a picture book idea was born.

Steiffgal: How did you first learn about Squirlie (the book's squirrel character, pictured here on the left) as part of this history?  Did that discovery in any way change how you felt about Rocky, or how you would present his character in the book?
Claudia McGehee:  Soon into research, I discovered little Rocky had brought along a stuffed toy squirrel named Squirlie. I was instantly smitten with this detail and knew I would work Squirlie at least visually into my book.

Rockwell Kent’s memoir mentions Squirlie several times.  The first reads, “Squirlie is Rockwell’s pet, brought from home with us. It sleeps every night close in Rockwell’s arms. I begin to almost believe in it myself.”  The father also notes that Squirlie often accompanied young Rocky on his adventures, specifically writing, “They went for a long way into the woods like good companions.”  The memoir also playfully reveals that Squirlie had a birthday celebration on the island and received many special gifts!  

Little Rocky was a kind, sensitive boy from his father’s descriptions, and how he treats Squirlie “with tender care” convinced me Squirlie was very special to him. I chose to show Squirlie as part of every day island life with the boy. Squirlie can be seen poking out of Rocky’s pocket in most of the illustrations, but he is also there, unseen, in the dramatic boat scene. Squirlie represented a comfort from home.  (In this picture above on the left, you can see a close up of Claudia's drawing of Rocky and Squirlie tucked into bed together after a long day of fun and adventures on Fox Island.)

Steiffgal:  It is probable that Squirlie was indeed made by Steiff. And, given that the Kents were from New York, it is possible that they purchased him at FAO Schwarz, as that toy store carried Steiff items as early as the turn of last century.  Do you have any specific history on

Claudia McGehee:  I had my suspicions early on, from two drawings of Squirlie in Kent’s original memoir, that Squirlie may be a Steiff. (One of these drawings, "Squirlie's Birthday Party," is pictured here on the left, it is from  is from Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska, By Rockwell Kent Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1996.) I asked a friend, an avid Steiff collector, her opinion, and she thought so too!  And I am encouraged by Steiff Gal’s thoughts on the matter as well.

I corresponded with one of Rocky’s descendants as part of my research and asked about Squirlie in particular. He couldn’t confirm that Squirlie was a Steiff.  He did recall that Rocky’s mother made little stuffed animals for her grandchildren, so it is plausible that she made Squirlie, given they were on a frugal artist’s budget.  

But noted scholar Scott Ferris wrote to me, "As for Squirlie … I have only seen it in illustrations. As for it being produced by Steiff, that certainly makes sense, on two fronts: one, as you point out, the Steiff stuffed toys were quite popular at the time; and two, RK being a lover of all things German, he probably would have voted for acquiring a German made toy for his son."

Steiffgal:  Do you know why Rocky chose to take Squirlie  - of all his toys and personal items - on this Alaskan adventure?

Claudia McGehee: I can only guess, but as mentioned above, Squirlie was already a part of Rocky’s life, it sounds. He was small and portable and cuddly. Exactly what you might need in the wilderness!

Steiffgal: And finally, we all would love to know... what became of Squirlie over time?

Claudia McGehee: As far as anyone I spoke with knew, Squirlie is no longer in the Kent family. So we may never know for sure! I am still on the hunt for clues, however. Perhaps one of your readers owns a 19-teens mohair Steiff squirrel that still has the faint smell of Alaskan wilderness!!

Steiffgal:  Wouldn't that be over the moon marvelous!  If anyone out there thinks they may have Squirlie in their Steiff hug, please do let me know!  Thank you so much, Claudia, for sharing this wonderful story with us today! 

Steiffgal hopes this conversation with about Squirlie and his great Alaskan adventure has been like a trip of a lifetime for you!

Have a question about one of your Steiff treasures? Let's talk! Click here to learn more.  

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