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Points of Articulation

yo go re
Researching toys of the past

When Toy Story 3 came out last year, there was a lot of talk of how very sad it was, how much of a tearjerker. And yeah, sure, it's a bit of a downer, but overall it's a happy sort of melancholy, like this awesome Calvin & Hobbes fan art. Anyway, for my money, Toy Story 2 is much more depressing than 3: in particular, the scene where Jessie gets lost, forgotten and abandonned. Hell, it was so powerful that they recycled that exact plot and put it in 3 as you-know-who's orgin.

Every kid has that one toy that they love more than any other. There's no shame in admitting it, it's true for all of us. If you're lucky, you've never lost that toy, but it's much more likely that either you or your parents decided it was time to move on. Me, I've held onto my favorite childhood toy: but then again, it's pretty obvious that I place more value on toys than any sane, socially well-adjusted person should, so maybe that shouldn't surprise you.

However, consider what CS Lewis wrote in 1952: "When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."

Now, obviously a kid doesn't know anything about their favorite toy: you name it, you drag it around with you, but knowing who made it, what it's actually called... that stuff is beyond us when we're little. Heck, back in the day our parents might not even have known - especially if the toy was a gift from some other relative, and they followed the instructions about removing all tags before giving it to a child. But now, we live in the future! There's nothing you can't learn about if your Google-Fu is strong.

So, this here was my buddy: KC the dog. Not Casey, as every adult who ever asked me his name assumed, but KC. I've had him for as long as I can remember - I asked my mom if she knew where he came from, and her best recollection is that he was a Christmas gift from my grandparents when I was about 2 years old. Sure, that sounds right; I certainly have no reason to dispute that. But she still didn't know anything about him beyond that. Well, anything about who made him: she did tell me a forgotten story of my childhood.

Like I said, I took KC everywhere - but apparently I didn't always bring him home. One time we'd gone to Kmart (which was off on the other side of town, so this wasn't just a quick jaunt) and I forgot him there. Just left him right on the shelf, probably while I was making a nuisance of myself for a He-Man or GI Joe figure. Obviously my shopping habits haven't changed very much. Anyway, he got left behind on the shelf, and I didn't realize it until we got home. It was right back across town to Kmart, of course, and he was waiting on the shelf right where'd I'd left him. Awww, heartwarming!

That wasn't the only time I forgot KC, either - I once left him in the dressing room at Sears. This was in the mall that was half an hour away, so it wouldn't have been a quick roundtrip to retrieve him, either. Fortunately, my mom noticed he was missing as we were leaving the store, so I ran back to get him; just as I got there, someone else was going into the dressing room, commenting "aww, somebody lost their little toy!" The day was saved again!

KC is a light brown dog with a short, soft snout and hard plastic eyes. He wears a railroad engineer's uniform, but the one you see in these pictures isn't the original: he was wearing out a bit, so a good friend of my mother's who was quite skilled with a sewing machine made him a new pair of overalls and a new cap. The hat is permanently attached, but the overalls are removable: they have functioning snaps holding them on. The red, white and black scarf around his neck is just tied on with a normal knot.

The material KC is made from has a short nap, so he's fuzzy but not furry. Or is it furry but not fuzzy? I don't know, he doesn't have long strands that a kid might pull off or eat. The undersides of his ears are smooth, just like a real dog's are, and while the head and torso are soft and squishy, the limbs are much more rigid. To what end? It's not like he can stand or anything. Considering how much time I spent playing with KC as a kid, the stitching has held up remarkably well. He has a few slightly balding spots, but nothing that's noticable upon first examination.

So, that's really cool and all, but being able to tell that KC was put together well still doesn't tell me anything specific about him. And while part of the point of this PoA is to forever immortalize KC (it's the least I can for him do after all the time we've spent together), the other intention was to provide an example of how to do research on a subject you know nothing about. I already asked the only person who was around back then, so now it's time to start hitting up the secondary sources. To Google!

I started by searching for "stuffed animals from the 80s," then "stuffed animals from the 70s," because I had no idea how old KC was when I got him. Those results were way too broad to narrow down what I needed - I could have pored through pages for a year and never found even a hint of what I was looking for. Hundreds of different stuffed animals are made every year - maybe thousands - so grouping the results by decade was like trying to find a needle not in a haystack, but in a box of identical needles.

At this point I switched over to Google Image search, because it's easier to browse that way, especially when you're trying to identify something you can recognize by sight but otherwise know nothing about. Still, the results weren't bringing closer to me goal, so I added a more specific modifier: "stuffed dogs from the 70s." Still no pertinent results, but we were starting to get somewhere.

KC's striped hat and overalls had always suggested that he was meant to be a railroad engineer, so I next tried "engineer dog." The results, as you can see if you follow that link, are pretty useless. It's row after row of some generic Cafepress clipart wearing different dog shirts with engineer slogans. Yeah. That's disappointing. Ah, but when I scrolled down to Page 2, something caught my eye: a tan dog with brown ears, wearing striped overalls! The design wasn't exactly the same as KC, but it was unmistakably close.

I clicked on the first image similar to KC, and it took me to a page offering a "VINTAGE KNICKERBOCKER CASEY JONES DOG PLUSH ENGINEER" (annoying caps lock theirs). This was 90% identical to my dog, just with slightly different proportions and "Casey Jones" embroidered in red on his bib - something mine never had. More importantly, this mention of "Knickerbocker" gave me a new direction to look.

Now, I'd never heard of the Knickerbocker Toy Company. You probably haven't, either: they don't have a Wikipedia page, and as far as I can tell, there's no dedicated fan page out there on the internet. I asked Bobbi from Raving Toy Maniac if she knew anything about the company, because she knows a lot more about non-"action figure" toys than any of us do, but the most she knew was that they were fairly well-known for making teddy bears in the '60s and '70s. Well, yeah - I'm researching a stuffed animal, so no surprise there. More research was required!

It turns out Knickerbocker was founded sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century in Albany, New York. Around 1850, they began making educational toys: alphabet blocks and the like. The first teddy bears definitely attributed to Knickerbocker are from 1927 - that's when the company started using permanent labels stitched into the seam of the toy. Their toys and dolls were very high quality, and are apparently rather collectible today.

In reading up on Knickerbocker stuffed animals, I learnt that the Casey Jones dog originated (in the '70s, as I'd originally suspected) as part of the Animals of Distinction line, the label Knickerbocker used for their high-quality stuffed toys. So that sent me off on a whole series of searches using "Animals of Distinction" in various combinations with dog, engineer, casey jones, etc. Here's what I found out:

The "Animals of Distinction" name was in use as early as the 1940s. It's always covered a wide variety of animals, not just bears: horses, bunnies, cats and dogs (obviously)... all sorts of stuffed things. The Casey Jones dog was made in various styles through the '70s and '80s, and was even popular enough that multiple people copied the style: this 1980 lawsuit stopped Genie Toys from selling knockoffs, and did so by citing a previous case Knickbocker had won against someone else. Since the toys were handmade, rather than machine-assembled, there's a lot of variation in the dogs' appearance: none of the pictures I've been able to find online look identical to KC, just similar.

Oh, and sidenote: what are the odds that I'd choose to call him KC when his name was actually Casey? It's not like the name is on the dog anywhere, so my family wouldn't have suggested it, either. Quite the coincidence!

Amazingly, the red scarf KC wears is the original one the toy came with. Looking at the pictures online, including this 1979 trade ad, the pattern of the material is the same - Knickerbocker must have bought a ton of that stuff to use it so consistently over the years.

Like I said, his original overalls were blue with narrow white stripes, but at least one person trying to rebuy a lost childhood toy insists there was a red and white version marketed for girls. No one else seems to be able to back up that claim, though, so whoever was looking for that one has a harder search ahead of them than I did. Good luck!

In 1977, the Knickerbocker Toy Company was sold to Warner Communications - yes, the same "Warner" in "Time Warner." Six years later Hasbro acquired Knickerbocker from Warner in exchange for 37% of its own stock, which was held in a voting trust by the Hassenfeld brothers and other Hasbro executives. Hasbro continued to produce toys under the Knickerbocker name (just like they would a decade later with Galoob and Kenner), eventually including a line of "Magic Attic" vinyl dolls, which were designed by Robert Tonner. In 2001, Marie Osmond and her husband purchased Knickerbocker and changed its name to Marian LLC. That company later became part of Charisma Brands, so there's no Knickerbocker Toy Company anymore.

So that's the story of Knickerbocker Toy Company, the folks who made my favorite stuffed animal. Does knowing any of that change anything? Does it make me love KC any less to know he was made by real people at a real company? No, of course not. The dog in this review isn't a Knickerbocker Casey Jones, he's still just KC. Always will be. But it's interesting info nonetheless, and it's nice to know I held onto my favorite childhood toy when so many other people are desperately trying to find a replacement for theirs. Decide on the things you truly love, and don't give them up just because someone else tells you it's time.

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