Two by Twoâ€”Noahâ€™s Arks
The Genesis flood story whereby Noahâ€™s Ark plays a key role has always been popular with adults and children alike. So itâ€™s not surprising that Noahâ€™s Arks have been made as toys since at least the 1700s. During the mid-late nineteenth century, Noahâ€™s Arks became one of the most popular wooden toys in both Europe and America. During the Victorian Era, every family of means had one. Since the subject of the toy was biblical, most children were only allowed to carefully play with their Noahâ€™s Ark only on Sundays. This had the unintended consequence of helping to preserve the toys which is likely why we can find Noahâ€™s Arks with animals in good condition.
Most arks from the nineteenth century were made either in Germany or by German immigrants in America. The arks were primarily a cottage industry involving the whole family and for many were an important source of their income. In the Nuremberg and Ergebirge area of Germany where toys were a huge business, arks were considered expensive, profitable and highly desirable. Often the children would paint the undercoat while the parents would do the detail and finishing coats. The animals were typically carved by the father. In other areas, you might have a family that specialized in making a specific animal or one that specialized in carving rather than painting and completing the animal. The industry grew until the end of World War 1, when they became mass-produced.
The animals in the arks were often fanciful â€“ both in terms of the carving and the colors. The early ones were all hand-carved but as they became mass-produced, they were made on a lathe into a doughnut shape with its surface the shape of the animal to be made. Then the doughnut was sawed or hand cut to separate the individual animals. The animals thus have a slight wedge shape seen from above. The separated, roughly shaped animals were then hand shaped, and painted. The rarest animals are the small ones such as insects and snakes. Also uncommon are animal pairs which have different poses such as one looking and the other feeding.
Arks made from straw and individual sticks of wood were referred to as â€œprisoner arksâ€ to imply they were made by prisoners using bedding straw â€“ which some may well have been. The earlier, best arks were ones with boat bottoms (deep hulls) with separately carved animals and brightly colored surfaces. They might be stenciled but the frieze under the roof would be hand-painted and very original in design. Early arks had removable roofs to store the animals and people inside. Hinges were added later to keep the roof from separating from the ark bottom. In early arks, a painted bird with an olive branch was almost always included. Starting in the 1880s, you find arks begin to include lithographs to speed the production and reduce the time it took for hand painting. The later mass-produced arks were all lithographed and in this time period also became more predominately flat-bottomed.
The arks were so popular that you had salesmen with elaborate toy books with hand painted pictures (ie catalogs) that would have example arks which customers would order. These toy catalogs are themselves rare and valuable collectibles. In the US, Wanamakers in Philadelphia and FAO Schwarz specialized in selling arks. In the mid-1800s the choices were limited to a few sizes and either deep or flat bottom design. By World War 1, the choices expanded to include not only many sizes and styles but also different animal assortments. In fact, animals were often sold separately as a 1893 catalog offers choices of different size animals of all kinds (real and imaginary) as well as people.
Since it was largely a cottage industry, it is impossible to identify ark manufactures. It is also hard to determine what the full complement of animals might have been for a given set; especially since the animals might have been ordered separately.
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German Noahâ€™s Arks, Antiques Council, April 14, 2009.
Noahâ€™s Arks, All About Old Toys, Jim Sneed.
Noahâ€™s Arks, Old Antique Toys, May 29, 2013.
Noahâ€™s Ark, Wikipedia.