‘Tis the season that little Ralphie and his pals at Warren G. Harding Elementary School in fictional Hohman, Indiana, bring us the holiday favorite "A Christmas Story" – the adorable tale of a little boy scheming for Santa and his elves to leave a Red Ryder BB Gun under the family Christmas Tree.
Other than the BB gun, little Ralphie is obsessed with his Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring, locking himself in the bathroom to decode the top secret message to "Drink More Ovaltine."
The Christmas classic comes to mind any time of year when visiting the new National Museum of Toys and Miniatures in Kansas City. Both the Red Ryder BB Gun and a Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring are among the new exhibits. The decoder ring exhibit even has several codes for visitors to decipher. Hint: Leaping Lizards was one of Annie’s favorite sayings.
Kansas City has long had a museum-worthy collection of toys and miniatures, housed on the campus of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. It was nice, but not really well organized and quite a mish-mash of this and that. So, they closed the doors for 18 months, totally gutted the inside and now, in addition to more interactive exhibits and brighter, more accessible displays, the museum places greater emphasis on the history of toys we all love and the children who once owned them. The 50,000 item antique toy collection is considered one of the largest on public display in the U.S.
From your basic stuffed teddy bear and Raggedy Ann and Andy Doll to Mr. Potato Head and GI Joe, the antique toy collection often tells the history of the item as well as the individual who donated the toy to the museum. For example, the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring was gifted to the museum by Dumont Reed of Larned KS. He was 11-years-old in the Great Depression when he helped Annie solve the mysteries of the world.
One teddy bear dates to 1905 and is in pristine condition, except for a very worn, abused nose. Teddy was owned by little Mabel Dixon who learned to take her frustrations in life out on the bear’s nose rather than those around her. The exhibit includes a picture of Mabel as a child and an 80-year-old woman, both holding the same bear.
Another new exhibit tells the history of toy manufacturing starting with Germany in the 1700s through modern day microchip toys. Cheesy black-and-white films from the 1950s show the construction process for Betsy Wetsy and Jack-in-the-Box.
The second half of the museum focuses on fine miniatures and the art of handcrafting these collectibles. With more than 21,000 items, the fine miniatures collection is the largest in the world. A new "In the Artist Studio" gallery showcases the work of two miniature artists - Lee-Ann Chellis Wessel and William Robertson – and the challenges of creating 1/12 scale items. Wessel demonstrates egg tempera painting and Robertson demonstrates how to make a ½ inch tall candlestick. Pick up a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers yourself and try to put the hands on a twelve-inch tall grandfather clock. In fact, take the magnifying glass all around the miniatures collection to check out the details.
Perhaps the most popular exhibit to return to the museum is "MicroCuriosities" that uses microscopes to showcase paintings on a pin head, sculptures on match sticks and two fleas dressed for a night on the town.
The museum opened in 1982 featuring the collection of two local women, with emphasis on miniatures and dollhouses. The renovation added about 25 new dollhouses to those already displayed and dozens of new dolls, including an Abe Lincoln and Paul Bunyan created as a Depression-era work project. The oldest toy in the collection is a wooden doll named Georgiana from 1750. Another creepy doll from 1870, named Odine, does the breaststroke. She’s not your typical cuddly doll that any child of the 21st century would possibly dream of Santa bringing on Christmas morning.
If your gift giving role this holiday season has you looking for unusual and seemingly unavailable old toys, check out the gift shop at the museum. It’s a delightful collection of wooden horses and Jacks and jump ropes – the simplest and happiest playthings from your own childhood not found in big box stores at any time of the year.
The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures is located 5235 Oak St., Kansas City and is open every day except Tuesdays.
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A Midwest farm girl at heart, Diana Lambdin Meyer caught the roaming bug early in life. Diana married well - to a photographer who also has the travel bug and whose work in still and video complements her words. Now based in the Kansas City area, Diana is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers who makes a full-time living on the road and at the keyboard. Read about Diana's adventures on her blog, Mojotraveler or follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.
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