Monday, April 14, 2014

Object of the Day, Museum Edition: A Clockwork Bear, 1850-1899

Clockwork Bear
The Victoria & Albert Museum

While the concept of a “Dancing Bear” seems quite cruel to us now, it was a staple of Nineteenth Century carnivals and an idea that was often incorporated into children’s playthings. To begin with, the bear was already a favorite subject of toy makers of the Nineteenth Century both in Europe and in the U.S. Here’s a rabbit skin and clockwork example which not only looks disturbingly realistic, but also dances just like the bears that people would see in traveling shows.

This poor bear stands on its hind legs and balances its weight on a walking stick. A figure of wood and cardboard covered in fur, it contains a clockwork mechanism. The bear has a brown glass eye (the other is missing), red plush jaws and teeth made of bone. Its nose and paws are of carved and painted wood. Upon his mouth, he wears a brass wire muzzle from which hangs an attached chain and ring.

Probably the work of a French toymaker, the toy is operated by a large brass key with a circular handle which is inserted into the right side of the body. When the metal rod on the left side is moved, the figure is animated--alternately rocking from side to side to give the impression of walking and dancing.

It’s attractive and horrible all at the same time, sort of like the very idea of a dancing bear.

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