Published: December 12, 2006
Throughout December, Winston-Salem’s historic district is alive with candlelight tours and caroling, wagon rides and visits from St Nick. At the Old Salem Toy Museum, however, the presents are already unwrapped.
The gift of Thomas A. Gray and his mother, the late Anne Pepper Gray (1921–2003), the Old Salem Toy Museum — one of four institutions that together make up Old Salem Museums and Gardens — houses 1,200 antique playthings dating from 225 to 1925. On view are European, British and American dolls and dollhouses, menageries, circuses, parlor toys, transportation toys, German wooden toys, seasonal toys, and children’s dishes, furniture, uniforms and sporting equipment.
At the heart of the collection are toys made for and used by the children of the Moravian settlers who established Salem in 1766. In 1913, Salem merged with nearby Winston to create Winston-Salem. Founded in 1950 with the aim of preserving the city’s historic center, Old Salem Museums and Gardens today maintains 12 restored or reconstructed exhibit buildings and 11 restored gardens open to the public. The Toy Museum is housed in the Frank L. Horton Museum Center on Old Salem’s 86-acre campus.
The Grays have long been prominent in the region. The family founded Wachovia National Bank, the forerunner of Wachovia Bank and Trust Co., and boasts four past chairmen of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. One of them, Bowman Gray Sr (1874–1935), contributed heavily to Wake Forest University, among other charities. Between 1927 and 1932, Gray and his wife created Graylyn, a country estate now managed as a conference center by Wake Forest. After a fire destroyed a portion of the estate in 1980, Gray’s grandnephew Tom Gray served as preservation consultant for its restoration.
A regular visitor to the Winter Antiques Show, the Philadelphia Antiques Show and Antiques Week in New Hampshire, Tom Gray is an Americana collector whose personal interests include Connecticut River Valley furniture, English delft, brass, hooked and shirred rugs and stone garden ornaments. A 1974 Winterthur graduate, Gray has devoted his life to decorative arts and historic preservation.
Formerly vice president of Old Salem, Inc, and director of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), another Old Salem property, Gray has been an Old Salem trustee since 1981 and was the organization’s chairman from 1994 to 1997. He will join the Old Salem delegation to New York City this January 19–28 when the Winter Antiques Show showcases MESDA in a 40-object loan show, “Southern Perspective: A Sampling From The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.”
“It’s the first time our greatest treasures have left the museum since 1965. These pieces will open people’s eyes to the splendor of the South,” says Gray, who has been involved in every aspect of the planning.
“My mother was a serious collector of American antiques, particularly William and Mary pieces, before most people in the Southeast. Her interest came from her cousin, Frank Horton. She passed her enthusiasm on to me,” says Gray.
Horton, who died in 2004, also inspired Gray. Born in Raleigh, N.C., in 1918, Horton, a lifelong collector, opened an antiques shop specializing in Southern antiques in Winston-Salem with his mother, Theo L. Taliaferro (1891–1971), in 1947. A student of Salem’s architectural history, Horton became Old Salem’s first director of restoration, a position he held for the next two decades. MESDA opened in 1965 with Horton and Taliaferro’s collection as its core.
Following the example set by Horton and Taliaferro, Tom and Anne Gray unveiled The Old Salem Toy Museum in 2002, after four years of intensive preparation. It was on a 1998 trip to Europe with Mary Harris Francis and Barbara Hall Marshall, founders of the Toy and Miniature Museum of Kansas City, Mo., that Tom Gray, who toured every major toy museum in Switzerland and Germany, began imagining the scope of what he might create.
“We tried to buy the very best toys available in the very best condition. That was paramount,” says the museum’s founder, who envisioned a broad and representative display.
The collection of early children’s ceramics, forerunners of Nineteenth Century ABC plates and mugs, is one of the Old Salem Toy Museum’s strongest suits. The Toy Museum also houses the largest collection of archaeologically retrieved English toys — including “shy cocks,” or knock-over targets, and miniature muskets — outside of the Museum of London.
“The Germans were the world’s leading toy makers before World War I and the Moravians emigrated from Germany, so the museum is naturally interested in handmade wooden German toys,” says Gray. German toys from Nuremberg, Sonneberg, Erzebirge, the Austrian valley of Gröden and elsewhere are prevalent. Among the highlights are an elaborate medieval castle made circa 1895 by Ludwig Moritz Gottschalk of Marienburg and a circa 1870 Noah’s Ark from Erzebirge.
“Happily, Old Salem already owned a collection of dolls, a lot of them made right here in Salem,” says Gray. Among the rarest are cloth Maggie-Bessie dolls, made by sisters Margaret Gertrude and Caroline Elizabeth Pfohl between 1880 and 1930. Even rarer and slightly earlier are Miss Chitty dolls, made by the Pfohls’ mentor, Emma Chitty.
The Grays filled the gap in Old Salem’s doll collection with a circa 1685 James II Shepherdess doll with a painted wooden head, arms and feet and her original bonnet and crook. A circa 1870 French fashion doll, Lillie, survives with her original trousseau.
“We have a big collection of toy carriages, boats and airplanes,” says Gray. The Old Salem Toy Museum owns the only known No. 16 child-size pumper by Gebrüder Märklin & Cie of Göppingen, Germany. Designed to shoot water from its rubber hose, it was made around 1900.
Also rare is a circa 1910 H. Fisher & Co., of Nuremberg flying machine, inspired by Wilbur and Orville Wright’s historic Kitty Hawk, N.C., flight in 1903.
The Old Salem Toy Museum collects for every season. Two German candy containers, circa 1900–10, acknowledge George Washington, whose birthday is celebrated on February 22. Rabbits and eggs from Sonneberg commemorate Easter. There are also toys for Valentine’s Day, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving and, of course, Christmas.
The Old Salem Toy Museum is installed on two floors. Says Gray, “It has a very contemporary look, with state-of-the-art of cases and fiber-optic lighting for many of the more fragile toys. Since this is not an interactive museum, we show a short film on the first floor on toys in motion.” On the second floor, films on toy trains and cars by Charles and Ray Eames, who were toy collectors as well as furniture designers, are screened next to the museum’s Märklin train layout.
Published in 2005, The Old Salem Toy Museum by Thomas A. Gray documents the museum’s founding and illustrates highlights from its growing collection. More references are planned. Children’s Ceramics, 1680–1825 by Richard D. Pardue, documenting the museum’s unsurpassed holding of children’s tea and dinner wares, is due out in early 2007; German Wooden Toys by Jan Gilliam, curator of toys at Colonial Williamsburg, in 2008; and a book on antique miniature furniture by Robert F. Trent is set for 2009.
“I’m still a full-time collector for the Old Salem Toy Museum,” says Gray, who buys through dealers and at auction in the United States and Europe. “The biggest competition right now is for American tin toys and Victorian dollhouses. Banks are going out of sight.”
Of course, the Old Salem Toy Museum welcomes gifts from others. “We’d be honored to receive a major doll collection,” Gray confesses.
New acquisitions keep visitors coming back to Old Salem Toy Museum time and again. Recent additions include a 1909 Teddy Roosevelt African Safari by Albert Schoenhut, a German American toymaker from Philadelphia. A circa 1850 English shadow box of a butcher’s shop decorated for Christmas, 47 inches wide, with 250 individually carved and painted cuts of meat is ex-collection of the Mary Merritt Doll Museum. Conservators removed old coats of paint to reveal original mahogany graining.
“When my mother and I decided to put together this collection as a gift, we sought the best to make a world-class museum. My only regret is that I didn’t start collecting toys in my Winterthur days,” acknowledges Gray, whose ambitions for the Old Salem Toy Museum are brighter than ever.
The Old Salem Toy Museum is at 924 South Main Street. For information, 888-653-7253, 336-721-7300, or www.oldsalem.org.
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