FUNNY HOW quickly Christmas toys and dolls get consigned to the "old toy" heap and the cry goes up once again, "There's nothing to do, Mom!" Here are three opportunities to show your kids some genuinely old toys and find something new to do on a gray January weekend.
Over at the National Gallery of Art, "Naive Visions: Antique Toys from the Shelburne Museum" and "An American Sampler" are two bright, colorful showcases of American folk art from the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, celebrating homespun whimsy.
The toy exhibit, on the ground floor of the East Building, focuses on American-made toys from 1870 to 1910 (earlier toys were mostly imported from Europe). There's a rather austere wooden hobby horse and a simple rocking horse that promises a little more action in the center gallery. But the more interesting toys are in the side galleries.
To the right, you'll find a painted metal 1905 firemen's hose carriage, with surging black and white chargers and a driver bent forward in obvious haste. And there's an 1870 painted circus bandwagon holding an entire brass band, pulled by white horses. While these toys only give the impression of motion, in a wall case you'll find two wonderful late 19th-century mechanical banks. An Indian hunter in buckskins and feathers takes rifle aim at a ferocious rearing bear. The penny travels from the rifle barrel into the bear's chest. Another bank features a man in a boat feeding Jonah, whose mouth has room for a coin, into the gaping jaws of a waiting whale.
There's more action across the way in the lefthand gallery, with a plush velvet music box topped by a sailor rowing a boat, coxed by the music. And there are dolls: a 1750 English wooden Queen Anne Doll that looks rather forbidding; a demure French "Lady Doll" from 1880 that looks too good to touch in her green silks and straw hat; and a prettily posed "Gibson Girl" doll -- the American ideal of the modern woman but made in Germany around 1900 -- with a profusion of pink feathers framing a painted bisque face with a turned-up nose and sparkling glass eyes. Next to it is a genuine American "Girl Doll" from 1875 made of painted cloth and fabric. Despite her homespun plainness, she's the only doll here that looks like something you could play with.
Watching over all the toys are American naive paintings from the gallery's own collection. Most are wooden-faced portraits of pantalooned, ringleted children, some playing with toys but not looking as though they're having much fun. The only exception is "Little Miss Fairchild," by William Matthew Prior, in which a very little girl in a polkadot dress hugs a cloth bunny. A curl askew, an oddly turned-out baby-fat foot and a wide-eyed expression give this portrait some childlike naturalness.
Also hanging on the walls are watercolors of American folk art objects, some of which are waiting upstairs in "An American Sampler," a show that reflects a time when toys weren't just for kids. Start with the 10-minute audiovisual program in which actress Jessica Tandy talks about the Shelburne museum and its collections. Then pick up a children's guide at the exhibit entrance. It's a superb six-page illustrated see-and-do guide with quizzes, match-ups and drawing room. And there's an accompanying keyed map.
The first gallery has attention-grabbing trade signs, including a dentist's giant wooden tooth hanging from the ceiling and a Paul Bunyan-sized rocking chair advertising the Boston Rocker Company's wares. And don't miss the carved wood whirligig of a swordsman whose broad swords slice the air. One of the most delightful objects here is an ingenious squirrel cage with a treadmill that, when activated, sets four carved wooden men to work sawing a plank.
In another gallery, stand fierce cigar store Indian carvings and an enchanting circle of wooden Denzel carousel animals, all carved before 1903. Presiding over all these animals in the center is the cock of the walk, a rooster barber's chair for children with a drawer in the rooster's chest for the barber's tools.
The show ends with a flourish of weather vanes: the traditional rooster plus a fanciful mermaid, a horse with a circus ballerina poised on its back and a large metal cow pocked with what look to be bullet holes, reminding us of another traditional use of weather vanes -- as targets.
Gentle "Please do not touch signs" are discreetly posted throughout the galleries and they need to be.
"For My Little One" at the DAR Museum is a small but charming exhibition of 19th- and 20th-century doll and cradle quilts, dolls and doll furniture and other accoutrements of infancy from the DAR's collection. After signing in with a security guard and clipping on a visitor's badge, you'll be led by a docent through a labyrinth of halls and stairs to a spectacular galleried library, all creamy white with a ceiling of medallion-patterned skylights, wedding-cake moldings, arches, chandeliers and a parade of state flags.
The exhibit is housed in old-fashioned wood and glass cases ranged round the upper gallery. The lighting isn't great, and the captions are difficult to read but the displays are fairly self-explanatory and the setting is fit for a fairytale ball. (Since there are researchers burrowing into tomes of genealogy below, you'll have to encourage kids to use their library voices.)
The cases are filled with cradle quilts and miniature doll-size quilts, some spread over impressive four-poster or canopied doll beds, a carved wood doll cradle and spiffy doll carriages with oilskin sunshades. The quilts range from elegantly fringed all-white 19th-century samples to colorful, homey 20th- century ones. A display of baby-feeding devices includes a delicate glass baby bottle (c. 1790) and an 1810 bottle with a silver nipple -- presumably this predates the proverbial silver spoon. And there are christening gowns, little girls' dresses, a pair of dainty wool and velvet shoes and, of course, dolls.
The most memorable is a large turn-of-the-century doll with a cotton body, painted features and laced-up leather boots. She's ensconced in an 1815-1820 child's "commode chair." Made of carved mahogany and plushly upholstered, it's a potty chair suitably elegant for its stately surroundings.NAIVE VISIONS: ANTIQUE TOYS from the Shelburne Museum and "An American Sampler." Both at the National Gallery of Art, East Building, daily through April 14. FOR MY LITTLE ONE -- At the DAR Museum, 1776 D Street NW. Open Monday through Friday 8:30 to 4, Sunday 1 to 5 (closed Saturday). The show is free and runs through March 13.