"I am not a toy curator, but a curator of toys," says John Noble mischievously. "A toy curator conjures up images of a mechanical mannequin with a key in its back. As you can see I am keyless."
John Noble is in charge of the City Museum of New York's collection of 20,000 toys, but his interest in old toys -- the best of which, he says, come from American -- began as a child in the early 1920s.
He grew up in southeast London, an old-fashioned part of town with lampposts on every corner. "I remember bringing my new toys to school and trading them with the other children for their older dolls, puzzles, picturebooks, etcetera.
"By age 15, I was already actively trading among friends, relatives and other collectors."
Although Noble studied and eventually earned his livelihood from the fine arts, his love for toy collecting stayed with him. In 1955 he went to work for Marguerite Fawdry, a toy manufacturer who began Britain's well-known Pollock Toy Museum. Noble built up the museum's collection. In 1960 Noble came to the United States to identify some dolls for the City Museum of New York. They offered him a job and there he remains till this day.
The City Museum's 20,000 toys include more than 700 dolls that range from the 17th century talking-heads to Fisher-Price's 1980 Baby Soft Sounds. Noble, who was recently in Washingtn to film a local television holiday special, considers himself more of a social historian than a toy expert. "Toys of yesteryear tell us a lot about history. How they were made, who made them, who played with them. After all, what's new today, be tomorrow is already history." One of his favorite topics -- judging by the trunk-load of dolls he carried with him this day -- is the history of the talking doll.
"The first talking dolls were very primitive," says Noble, "and they were made for adult amusement not for kids. German toy makers came out with life-size talking heads about 1770. The craftsmen carted them around to entertain the crowned heads of Europe. The talking heads were mounted on a wooden box and they 'spoke' when large bellows blew air through the box which was filled with various-sized modified reeds. 'mamma' and 'papa' was about all they could say."
In the early 19th century, talking dolls were made for children. Dolls with music were easy enough to make -- just insert a music box -- but dolls that could speak were another matter. These dolls, says Noble, had a limited vocabulary -- they could cry and say "mamma." By squeezing the doll or by just tipping the doll forward the child activated the bellows that blew air past a reed.
Among Noble's prized possessions, toted around Washington with him, was a talking book, made about 1870. By pulling cords on the different pages the reader can make the cows "moos," the birds "chirp" or the roosters "crow."
Shortly after, in 1878, Thomas Edison invented a talking doll that worked with a tiny phonograph. But it wasn't until 1889 that he made an esthetically pleasing doll consisting of Bisque head from Germany and France, wooden limbs and a tin torso.A small wax-covered wheel that revolved on a steel rod formed the phonograph mechanism. One end of the rod stuck out the back of the doll. A key was used to start the rod, which then activated a small needle playing on grooves in the wax wheel. The resulting sound moved a miniature diaphragm up and down, producing "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
The Jumeau Factory of Paris immediately reproduced the Edison doll but instead of using a wax phonograph, they recorded the doll's speech on a plastic disk. These disks, says Noble, were the first records as we know them today. The French doll, call Bebe Phonographe, had a vocabulary of 35 words and had extra disks carryng English or Spanish versions. Today two of Noble's Jumeau dolls are leased to Lord & Taylor's in New York City for the holidays. According to Noble, they're insured for $32,000.
"About the turn-of-the-century a walking and talking doll was created by a German toy company," says Noble as he reached into his trunk to pull it out. "The doll, as you can see, looks more like a monster with a dress on rather than the delicate creature that it is." The doll does resemble Frankenstein. Its robot appearance was not even masked this day by a dress, (which has since been lost) exposing its mechanical insides -- very similar to the brass work inside a mantle clock. Noble demonstrated the doll's walking capabilities, forcing it to trundle forward on rusty brass wheels.
"The metal work that went into these automated dolls eventually became too complicated to include in a mere doll," recounted Noble. "They often broke unless the child handled them with the utmost care -- which was rarely the case."
So by the beginning of the 20th century most dolls went back to saying just "mamma" or "papa." But in the 1950s Mattel invented the Barbie Doll. By pulling a string in her back, Barbie could say a number of sentences ranging from "Take me to the movies" to "I need a new dress." Mattel's Chatty Cathy and Dr. Doolittle (1972), ressembling Rex Harrison, soon followed in Barbie's footsteps.
Now in 1980 there's Baby Soft Sounds, by Fisher-Price. Baby Soft Sounds is motion sensitive and works by a sound box containing a torch battery that is inserted into her back. She cries if she needs to be picked up and coos when she's happy. "A psychologist worked with the manufacturer to get the sounds just right," says Noble.