14 February 2017

Horsman Dolls


My maternal grandfather, Harry Freedman (1896-1967), made dolls for a living.  It was a pretty good living: he supported my grandmother, my mother, and her sister pretty nicely right through the Great Depression and World War II, and they all came out the other side in good shape and went on to live comfortable lives.  Grandpa Harry—sometimes HF when I was little—eventually got both his sons-in-law and a couple of nieces’ husbands jobs after World War II and supported or subsidized, unbeknownst to the rest of his family until after his death, other relatives and in-laws who had fallen on hard times.  Harry was a good businessman, investing in or starting several other concerns in addition to the doll company—but he was also a soft touch.  I recently learned from a cousin on my dad’s side that after my mother and father were married, my other grandfather, Jack (1890-1963), who was a pharmacist, was in danger of losing his Manhattan drugstore; I believe the landlord had raised the rent—a problem that still frequently occurs today. 

When my mother’s parents met my father’s folks after my future parents were engaged, the family lore is that Harry and my paternal grandmother, Lena, immediately adored each other.  (I never knew Lena—she died when I was about a year old—but my mother always told me that she was the nicest person ever.  She couldn’t cook worth a damn, Mom told me—except one dish: stuffed cabbage—but she never had a bad word to say about anyone, even the worst good-for-nothing in the family circle!  Harry, on the other hand, who was only 5' 4" tall, was known by his business colleagues as “Little Caesar” (no connection to the pizza business, started in 1959, but may have been a reference to the character played by Edward G. Robinson—who was 5' 7"—in the 1931 movie of that title.)  Out of this inter-family affection, Grandpa Harry bought the building in which Grandpa Jack (JL when I was a boy) had his pharmacy.  Jack, and I presume Lena, knew that Harry’d done this, but none of the rest of either family did.  (I learned this from my cousin only about a year ago.  Jack had died in 1963 and Harry in 1967.) 

(In a curious coincidence, my Grandfather Jack’s drugstore was at 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, which is seven blocks north and a block-and-a-half east of where I now live.  I often pass the site where the building stood—though it’s no longer the same structure.  My dad’s family even lived in an apartment in the same building—“over the shop,” if you will—in the ’30s and ’40s, which is when my mom and dad met and became engaged.  Furthermore, Grandpa Harry’s office, the sales offices of Horsman Dolls, was in 200 Fifth Avenue, known as the Toy Center South, at 23rd and Fifth, literally just up the street from my current apartment, and 1½ blocks west of Jack’s drugstore.  When I first moved to New York and Dad, the family representative on the Horsman board, came up from Washington for board meetings, we’d meet for lunch and if he stayed overnight in New York, he’d stay at my apartment down Fifth Avenue from the Toy Center.)

Harry was a World War I vet.  He fought in France and was wounded so that he was sent home prior to Armistice Day (11 November 1918)—before most of the other Doughboys came back.  (The family story was that when Harry’s parents got the telegram informing them that their son had been wounded, it read curtly: “Harry Freedman shot in buttocks.”  My grandfather’s family, not very knowledgeable about European geography—my father’s parents were born abroad, but my mother’s family had been Americans for several generations—and knowing only where Harry’d been fighting, pored over the map of France looking for a place called “Buttocks”!  I have no idea if this anecdote is accurate—or even true—but that’s the story and I’m stickin’ to it.)  And so, Harry came home, invalided out of the service, at loose ends, and, having recovered from his wound, one of few able-bodied young men in the States while the war was winding up in Europe.  He began looking for something to do with his life.

Many years earlier, when Harry was a boy and vehicles on New York City streets were still drawn by horses, he was hit by a city garbage wagon and slightly injured.  As compensation for the accident, the city paid him $10,000, a mighty sum in those days (about $250,000 today, calculating from 1906 when Harry’d have been 10).  The money had been put aside for his future, as people used to say, but now Harry, 22 or 23 (I’m not sure exactly when he got back from France), decided it was time to put it to work and start that future.  The budding businessman started looking for something worthy of his investment and he found a company: the Regal Doll Manufacturing Company of New York City.  Before the war, Regal was known as the German American Doll Company; the reason for the name-change is pretty obvious, I think.  It was a going concern, with plenty of orders and a busy factory on West Houston Street at the southern edge of what is now NoHo, but it needed capital to buy raw materials to fill the orders.  So Harry bought into Regal Doll and became a partner, eventually taking over leadership of the business.  After a few years, Regal Doll Manufacturing changed its name again, becoming the Regal Doll Corporation.

Before the 20th century, dolls in the U.S. were almost exclusively imported from Europe, most frequently from Germany.  Even when American companies started manufacturing domestic products just after the turn of the century, the materials were brought over from Europe.  World War I disrupted that supply chain and the American doll manufacturers like Regal began making a product based largely on local materials.  So when my grandfather invested his nest egg in Regal Doll, it was ripe for success, and the company prospered, making a good-quality, popular-priced doll.   


In the middle of the 19th century, dolls—really the doll’s heads and sometimes the hands and feet—were made of porcelain, either china (shiny and not very realistic-looking) or bisque (matte and much more lifelike).  Homemade dolls could be made of rags, corn husks, carved wood, or any available material, but manufactured dolls were porcelain—and they were highly breakable, a serious drawback for a child’s toy. 

A major improvement came along as early as 1877: the composition doll.  Made of a composite of sawdust, glue, and such additives as cornstarch, resin, and wood flour (finely pulverized wood), composition dolls had the great advantage of being unbreakable, and by the beginning of the 20th century, composition dolls were the most popular kind of doll on the American market.  Horsman (which would be Regal’s successor) secured the rights to the process, which was the principal material for dolls from about 1909 until World War II.  (The two dolls I mention below were composition dolls.)
 
In the ’30s, Regal made a 19-inch-tall doll with composition shoulders and head, composition arms, partial composition legs, cloth stuffed body and stitched hips.  The head had molded, painted hair; blue tin eyes; and a closed painted mouth.  The doll’s name?  The Judy Girl Doll.  My mother’s name was Judith!

Later that same decade, Regal marketed a 12-inch-tall all-composition doll with a jointed body and painted, molded hair; painted blue eyes; and closed painted mouth that came in a cardboard carrying case with a wardrobe and roller skates.  (This doll also came with “sleep” eyes, or “open-and-close” eyes, and a mohair wig over her molded hair.)  This baby’s name?  Bobby Anne.  My mother’s little sister was Roberta Ann, called Bobby.  

By the ’30s, however, Regal’s Manhattan factory was no longer adequate for the growing business and Harry went in search of larger facilities for his burgeoning company.

He found the Horsman Doll Company, the oldest doll-maker in the United States established in New York City in 1865 by Edward Imeson (E. I.) Horsman (1843-1927).  “No other company even comes close to its record of longevity,” says a corporate description on Zoominfo.  E. I. Horsman had retired in the early years of the 20th century and turned the company, one of the pioneers in the manufacture of American dolls, over to his son, but Edward, Jr. (1873-1918), died suddenly at 45 and E.I. returned to the business.  Then E. I. Horsman died in 1927 and the previously greatly successful company fell into serious financial trouble. In the early 1930s, the foundering company had built a large, but under-used factory in the Chambersburg neighborhood of Trenton, New Jersey, so Regal bought it for its new manufacturing base.

Having already purchased Horsman’s newly-built Trenton plant, Regal Doll, now under the direction of my grandfather and his chief salesman, Lawrence Lipson (1896-1959), acquired the nearly bankrupt Horsman Doll in October 1933.  The new leadership and Regal’s solid business position revived the fortunes of Horsman (whose name was pronounced like horse-man and whose logo was a horse’s head) and the new company continued to make dolls under both trade names, Regal and Horsman.  Regal produced a mid-level, less-expensive doll, while Horsman’s product was a higher-quality doll at a slightly higher (but still affordable) price.  By 1937, however, Harry Freedman and Larry Lipson realized that Horsman was the superior brand and in 1940, Regal Doll formally became Horsman Doll and the Regal label disappeared from the market.  (The present-day Regal Toy Company of Toronto, Canada, is a different company unaffiliated with my grandfather’s business.)

At the time of the purchase, my mother’s family moved from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where much of Harry’s family also lived, to Fisher Place on the Delaware River in downtown Trenton so my grandfather could be near his business, a scant three miles away.  (The new company’s business headquarters was still located in Manhattan—in the Toy Center South, which had become a home base for the toy industry during World War I.)  Mom (1923-2015) lived in Trenton from then until she was married (not counting prep school in Pennsylvania and college in upstate New York), and my Aunt Bobby (1927-2006) stayed there after marriage (to a man who became a Horsman VP and its in-house counsel) until she and her husband separated in the ’50s.  My grandparents moved back to New York City after World War II, once both daughters were married (my mother in January 1946 and Aunt Bobby in November 1947), living at 68th and Fifth, across from Central Park.  (I said the doll business provided Mom’s family with a comfortable life, didn’t I?) 

From about 1880 to the end of the 1960s, the State of New Jersey was one of the country’s most productive toy-making states.  With over 50 toy companies with names like Tyco (HO scale toy trains), Lionel (model trains), J. Chein (mechanical toys), Remco (remote control toys), Topper Toys (model cars and inexpensive dolls), Courtland (wind-up toys), and Colorforms (creative toys) operating in the state, Regal and Horsman weren’t alone in the Garden State.  In its heyday, Horsman’s Chambersburg plant was touted as the largest toy factory in the United States.  One block square, at its peak the two-building, three-story brick complex at 350 Grand Street in an otherwise residential neighborhood of South Trenton employed 1,200 workers and manufactured hundreds of thousands of dolls every year, earning the nickname “World’s Largest Doll House.”  “Not many people realize it, but if you purchased a doll from 1930 to 1960 it was probably made here in Trenton,” says Nicholas Ciotola, curator of cultural history at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, where an exhibit called Toy World is running just steps away from the Horsman factory.  (The exhibit, in the Riverside Gallery from 15 October 2016-30 April 2017, focuses on the toys manufactured in New Jersey during the 20th century. I went down to Trenton to see it on 7 February so I could check out the Regal and Horsman displays.) 

By the 1940s, Horsman Doll was a great success on the basis of its moderately priced, good-quality, baby dolls that little girls loved.  (It was my mother’s hard luck that she had two sons and no daughters on whom she could lavish Horsman dolls every Christmas and birthday.  The attic of the house in which my brother and I grew up was half-filled with boxed Horsman dolls for our female cousins and the daughters of my parents’ friends—but none for her own children.  Aunt Bobby, on the other hand, had two daughters—the youngest one named Judith.)  The beautiful baby dolls came without fancy names (the child got to name her dolly whatever she wanted; the box didn’t provide a name) or marketing gimmicks, but dressed in lovely doll clothes.  (My grandfather was color-blind but he could tell fine fabric and excellent workmanship; he just needed employees to help him pick out the colors.  In fact, he had the same problem with his own clothes—and sometimes his socks and trousers or jackets and ties really clashed.  But they were made from top-quality fabrics!) 

During World War II, shortages of raw materials dealt the American toy industry a serious blow.  Some essential supplies were imported from overseas, including Axis territory and occupied countries.  Kapok, for example, a fiber from the silk-cotton tree used for stuffing doll bodies, came principally from the Japanese-occupied Dutch East Indies—and, of course, shipping of any kind was at risk.  Most domestic materials, like the mohair for doll wigs and metal for sleep-eye mechanisms, were diverted to war industries, so little remained available for toy manufacturers.  Some toy companies began making products for the war effort.  Horsman was able to continue making some dolls, but the Chambersburg factory turned part of its manufacturing floor over to soft vinyl prostheses, such as artificial hands for amputee veterans.  After the war, most doll-makers scrambled to return to the production of dolls, but Horsman capitalized on its wartime experience with vinyl.  

For all its advantages as doll-making material, composition was difficult to work with and it was hard to the touch.  Vinyl was a soft, easily-molded, durable, unbreakable plastic that could be sculpted into life-like faces and was pleasing to a little girl’s touch.  It was the perfect doll material and Horsman was a pioneer in its use in the doll industry.  It wasn’t the first doll firm to use plastic, though in 1947 it was the first to do so on a large scale.  From the post-war years until my family relinquished control of Horsman for the final time (I’ll get to this), its dolls were made with vinyl heads.

In the 1950s, Horsman developed an even more flexible material it dubbed Super-Flex, used for the dolls’ bodies, which for the composite dolls had been made of stuffed fabric and for the all-vinyl dolls were soft plastic that allowed for only minimal manipulation.  Super-Flex permitted the dolls’ knees and elbows to be bent so the dolls could be posed in many different ways.  Later in the ’50s, Horsman introduced further advancements in the dolls’ vinyl skin, giving it an even more like-like feel.

In the same decade, the company introduced Polly, an African-American doll.  (A Polly was included in the NJSM exhibit.)  Horsman wasn’t the first doll-manufacturer to market a black doll—there were African-American dolls available in the 19th and early 20th centuries—but most of the earlier African-American dolls were merely models of the companies’ standard dolls from white molds painted dark brown.  Horsman’s Polly was an attempt to create a black doll with more realistic features.  She was sold from the mid-’50s through the 1970s and ’80s (the latter years by a derivative company that had duplicated Horsman’s original products). 

Horsman dolls were seldom sold under the company name in the ’50s  and ’60s.  Horsman made most of its dolls for retailers like Sears, Montgomery Ward, Gimbels, and Macys and packaged them under the stores’ names.  (Occasionally, I’d hear the name Horsman Doll on a TV show which used them as giveaways for game-show contestants or participants.  I recall that Art Linkletter, 1912-2010, gave away Horsman dolls on his variety and kiddie TV shows between 1950 and 1969.  I always had a little twinge of pride when Linkletter would announce that all the girls on the show would receive a Horsman doll as a gift from the show.  I don’t remember what the boys got.) 

By the 1950s, however, Harry Freedman and his now-partner, Larry Lipson, saw that the doll company had grown to its limit.  It had supported the Freedmans and the Lipsons very well, but it wasn’t going to get any bigger.  Horsman made only baby dolls; it didn’t make “action figures” for boys or any other toys (not since the original Horsman family years) and it didn’t diversify its factory to make other plastic items (aside from that wartime foray).  Like most toy businesses, Horsman’s one big sales period, when it made its annual profit, was Christmas; the rest of the year, business dragged until it was time to gear up for the holiday gift season—and that wasn’t going to change.  Larry Lipson’s son, Gerald (1925-88), would take over the business when his father retired, just as Larry had taken over for Harry—but Gerry’s children were disinclined to run the company and Harry’s grandchildren (there were four of us: my brother and me, and Aunt Bobby’s two daughters) were still little kids.  So the shareholders—the Freedman and Lipson families and a few key Horsman employees, made the decision to sell the company.  A conglomerate, Botany Industries, purchased Horsman Dolls in 1957 in a period of expansion. 

I’m no businessman (and I was very young at the time), but as I understood it later, the deal, in  which my father, by then a member of Horsman’s board of directors, was instrumental, was standard.  Botany agreed to pay off the purchase price over several years, a decade I believe, and if at any point during that period the buyer defaulted on the payments, Botany would forfeit all the money it had paid up to that time and the company would revert to the sellers.  And that’s what happened sometime in the early ’60s—1961 or ’62 as I recall.  Botany had decided that it had over-expanded and over-diversified and had to divest of several smaller acquisitions and downsize (though that term wasn’t in general use quite yet).  So after paying off nearly the entire purchase price for Horsman, Botany backed out of the sale and the Freedmans and the Lipsons got the company back.  I tell people that this is the only real-life instance of which I’ve ever heard of someone actually having their cake and eating it, too. 

During the time that Botany owned Horsman, the Trenton factory was deemed outdated and beyond upgrading or retooling.  So in 1960, Botany closed the Chambersburg plant and built a new facility in Columbia, South Carolina, a right-to-work state.  That’s where Horseman dolls were made when we got the company back.  (After I got out of the army in 1974, I went to visit an army buddy with whom I’d served in Berlin who was stationed at Fort Jackson.  I took him and his wife out to see the factory—which I’d never seen myself—and watch them make dolls.)  The plant in Trenton was abandoned and, despite some interest a decade or so ago in converting it to residences, it remains unused.  There’s some discussion of preserving it as an example of industrial architecture of the first decades of the 20th century, but I’m not sure how much traction that idea has—the old brick buildings are hardly worth looking at from an aesthetic point of view.  They’re under threat in a gentrifying neighborhood because a developer who controls the property has proposed to raze the entire complex in order to build townhouses. 

Not long after that trip to Columbia, the families put the company on the block again.  Gerry Lipson was retiring and no one from either the Lipson or Freedman families was qualified (or interested) to assume control.  This time, Drew Industries, another conglomerate, bought Horsman—but the terms of the sale were a little different.  Drew issued promissory notes to the shareholders (which now included my two cousins, my brother, and me as a result of the death of Harry’s widow, our maternal grandmother, Valerie, 1900-74, whose estate, with the Horsman shares she’d inherited from Grandpa Harry, went to her grandchildren) that became due over just a few years.  When the purchase was concluded, Horsman Dolls became Drew Dolls, under which name it produced dolls for a few more years, and then Drew Industries liquidated the company and Horsman Dolls, one of the last companies to manufacture dolls in the United States and never made them abroad, passed out of existence.  The dolls from both Regal (including the Judy Girl, Bobby Anne Dolls, and Polly) and Horsman are now all collectors’ items and there are books on them and the companies. 

As a coda, in 1986 the Horsman name was sold—I guess by Drew—to Gatabox, Limited, of Hong Hong, which produced dolls, including reproductions of Horsman classics, under the name Horsman, Limited.  The new company has no connection to either the original E. I. Horsman company or to my grandfather’s business—Gata just bought the name.  That company dissolved in 2002 but was succeeded by a new corporation known as Horsman, Limited, headquartered in Great Neck, New York, on Long Island and it continues to market dolls, but they’re made in Hong Kong now. 

*  *  *  *
Aside from a nice inheritance from my grandfather and a comfortable life growing up because Grandpa Harry engineered a good job for my father after World War II, I didn’t derive any direct benefit from Horsman Dolls.  My two cousins, Aunt Bobby’s daughters, may have had plenty of dolls to play with when they were little girls—and, of course, their father had a good job at the company until he and my aunt split up, but the doll company was never a huge presence in my life.  As a kid, I got some fun out of my dad’s job.  I thought it was kind of neat in the 1950s that he ran a movie-theater company and I got to go to the movies for free a lot and treat my friends—all the theater companies in Washington gave passes to their competitors—and that was thanks to Grandpa Harry, although I really didn’t think of it that way back then.  It was just Dad’s work. 

But there was one benny I got from Horsman that I really took advantage of from time to time—and quite a bit when I moved to New York City after the army.  The company had a ticket broker on retainer for the sales staff so they could take buyers to Broadway shows.  The broker could get seats to just about any show, even ones that were otherwise hard to get into and was an effective way to entertain Horsman clients.  The company made this service available to the families, and when we came to New York, my parents would get tix for the big shows like My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Camelot.  (I wrote about this in my post “A Broadway Baby,” 22 September 2010.)  Later, when I was old enough to come to New York on my own, from prep school in New Jersey or college in Virginia, I used the Horsman perk.  One spring break, I took my two college apartmentmates and another frat brother, all New Yorkers, to three plays, two Broadway shows (Man of La Mancha, The Impossible Years) and my first Off-Broadway drama (Ceremonies in Dark Old Men), courtesy of Horsman Dolls.  

When I came here to live in New York, I tried to see as many shows as I could, taking an acting classmate with me whenever I could, until we sold the company for the last time.  (I knew the sale was coming, probably sooner rather than later, so I was bound to take advantage of the privilege as much as I could before I lost it.)  I figured I ought to spread the wealth around a little.  After all, I wasn’t paying for the tix out of my pocket (they were coming out of my inheritance, in a manner of speaking), but it wasn’t a freebie.  The producers, and therefore the artists, were getting paid, so everyone was benefitting.  When we sold Horsman to Drew, I lost that perk and had to cut way back on Broadway theatergoing.  Broadway ticket prices had gone way up and for the cost of one Broadway seat I could see two or three Off-Broadway productions or more than a half dozen Off-Off-Broadway shows.  It was a deprivation I sorely lamented—the one thing Horsman Dolls gave me that I really appreciated while I had it. 

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