May 242016

Sitting in a drawer in my house, protected from being turned into a chew toy for the depot puppies, is an old, thread-bared, and well-loved bear, named “Bear.” He is approximately seven months older than I, so he is, in fact, old enough to qualify for our Thursday Senior discount here at the depot. He’s not very big, maybe a dozen inches, and looks like he has been through the wars. He started life in a toy shop in Calgary, Canada and arrived at the Presbyterian manse in Hilger, Montana via a crop duster. I keep him because he is my bear and has been part of my landscape for nearly 60 years.

Most folks, regardless of gender, remember a stuffed critter that defined at least part of their childhoods. For my father, it was a stuffed Steiff schnauzer; for my college roommate, it was a stuffed monkey. Both critters, like “Bear” were thread-bare and well-loved. In an age when toys are defined by electronic movement and the presence of gadgets, stuffed animals remain as one of the few, purely simple toys left.

A very brief history of stuffed critters….

Stuffed critters, the plush kind, have been around for just shy of 200 years (c. 1830), but they were not manufactured commercially until 1880, when Steiff, a German Company, was founded by Margarete and Fritz Steiff (brother and sister) . The first stuffed critter was an elephant and actually started life as a pin cushion. However, being astute, Ms. Steiff noticed that kids were not only drawn to the stuffed critters, they played with them. 132 years later, kids are still playing with them.

The popularity of stuffed animals, however, came to popularity during the original do-it-yourself period during the late 19th Century, when ladies magazines met the Arts and Crafts movement.

1902 and 1903 were banner years in the development of the stuffed critter industry, especially in Great Britian with the introduction of a stuffed version of Peter Rabbit, based on the books by Beatrix Potter, and in the United States when Morris Michtom introduced the Teddy Bear, a critter based on a political cartoon featuring President Teddy Roosevelt and a bear cub. Michtom, a Russian Jewish immigrant, and his wife, Ruth, started the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company a few years later, the same company that brought you Betsy Wetsy and Thumbalina, along with a whole raft of other toys over the years. Like many toy companies, Ideal has since been swallowed by Mattel.

The sock monkey (we carry a sock monkey kit in The Cambria Toy Station) is a far newer stuffed critter, although most folks may think it is older because it harkens back to the “make it at home” movement of the previous century. Sock monkeys were invented during the height of the Great Depression and illustrate what happens when kitsch meets toys. You can thank a sock company out of Rockford, Illinois, the Nelson Knitting Company, for introducing red heels to socks in 1932.

The Teddy Bear was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998, the first year the Hall of Fame was established by the Strong Museum.


Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing Wold of American ChildhoodGary S. Cross (1999). Harvard University Press.

Books With Bears

  • Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Robert Southey (1834)
  • Winnie the Pooh. A.A. Milne (1926)
  • A Bear Called Paddington. Michael Bond (1958)

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May 242016

My Grandmother Nell collected porcelain head dolls and spent evenings sewing new dresses; roamed the Kansas countryside with an old Brownie camera looking for interesting images to accompany her history articles for the Kansas State Historical Society journal;  scrapbooked everything in sight; played ragtime piano and Saint-Saens’ and Bach’s concertos on violin; and never missed an episode of Lawrence Welk. My Grandmother Margaret painted landscapes and the occasional portrait; avidly gardened  in the short Montana growing season; actively participated in the local Great Books society and spent most evenings reading; and loved swimming and hiking–she knew the name of nearly every native plant in the front range of the Montana Rockes.  While they had little in common, the one thing they shared was a passion for hobbies they learned as children.

A hobby is a regular activity that is done simply for pleasure. In the traditional sense, hobbies have involved creating something (origami, knitting, sewing, quilting, woodworking, modeling, photography, cooking, writing), pursuing a special interest (genealogy, stamp or coin collecting, reading), or participating in an activity (bridge, games, puzzles, hiking, sports, juggling, cycling, swimming).

According to researchers, hobbies are good for your long term health, your levels of energy and creativity, and your level of concentration. An article in the New York Times explored the issue of whether or not hobbies were “good for you.” The answer? Yes.:

Hobbies can enhance your creativity, help you think more clearly and sharpen your focus, said Carol Kauffman, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School. “When you’re really engaged in a hobby you love, you lose your sense of time and enter what’s called a flow state, and that restores your mind and energy,” she said. In a flow state, you are completely submerged in an experience, requiring a high level of concentration. Research shows strong correlations between flow states and peak performance, said Ms. Kauffman.

Being in that heightened state of concentration raises the levels of neurotransmitters in your brain — chemicals like endorphins, norepinephrine and dopamine — that keep you focused and interested in what you’re doing and that energize you, said Dr. Gabriela Corá, a psychiatrist who is managing partner of the Florida Neuroscience Center and president of Executive Health and Wealth Institute, an executive coaching firm in Miami.

“Making time for enjoyable activities stimulates parts of the brain associated with creative and positive thinking. You become emotionally and intellectually more motivated,” she said.

Hobbies also enhance self-esteem and self-confidence. Feeling that you are solely defined by your job — even if it is going well — can raise your chances of experiencing anxiety, depression and burnout, because you don’t have a perception of yourself outside of work, said Michelle P. Maidenberg, a psychotherapist and business coach in New York, and clinical director of Westchester Group Works, a center for group therapy.

“When people rely only on their role at work to foster self-esteem, that alone cannot typically fulfill their needs,” she said. If you are unhappy with your work performance, you are more inclined to define yourself as inadequate, but if your identity is varied — businesswoman, mother, wife, painter, cook — you can reflect on your success in those other things, she said. (Elaine Zimmerman, 12/2/07, NYT)

Christmas is the perfect time to encourage children of all ages to try something new or experiment with something they’ve tried before. Here at the Depot, we believe in helping children and parents find activities that encourage active engagement, creativity, critical thinking, and a whole host of other skills that will serve them well in the future.

This Christmas, give the gift of a hobby,:

    • learning to do tricks with a Kentama or Diabolo,
    • exploring an interesting bit of science,
    • creating art or craft objects,
    • curling up with a good book,
    • building a paper model, a plaster castle, a ship, or an interesting sculpture.

Stop by the Cambria Toy Station, and we’ll help you find the perfect hobby and the perfect Christmas present.


Essay on the Importance of Hobbies.  Manish Rajkoomar.
The Importance of Hobbies for Stress Relief.  Elizabeth Scott M.S. (About.Com, Stress Management)
Starting your Children on Hobbies. Andrew Loh. Brainy Child.
Why Kids Need Hobbies. Better Homes & Gardens

The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child BondsKenneth R. Ginsburg. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2007.

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May 242016

My father, for reasons known only to him and perhaps to my mother, decided to go to graduate school in Sociology after nearly a decade as a Presbyterian minister, first in Montana and then in Missouri. As a kid, it never dawned on me to ask why, nor was it apparent that the decision to go back to school had any impact on my life. Ten year olds are far more aware of theme songs on Saturday morning cartoons than the inner workings of their parents minds. Now, nearly 50 years later, I can appreciate the financial impact his decision had on the family’s bottom line, and even more, my parents’ creative response to Christmas.

In 1967, at the advanced age of 10, I was busy memorizing every song on the radio (all of which I joyfully sang out of key), pretending to be a rock star and strumming on a beat up old tennis racket, and trying to practice piano. While my piano teacher thought that I should learn Minuet in G, I was more interested in the Beatles, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Like most kids, I spent hours during the lead up to Christmas, pouring through the Sears Wishbook and writing and rewriting  the list to my parents. I also knew, however, that what ever I received wasn’t likely to come from the catalog.

Beside the obligatory set of Legos, Matchbox cars, and the geology and chemistry sets I couldn’t live without, the vast majority of my presents were made, not by Santa or Sears, but by my parents: a dollhouse, a kitchen including hoosier cabinet, trucks, planes, blocks, and, in 1967, a Paul McCartney marionette, complete with guitar.

In many respects, the presents were magical…especially for the other families in the neighborhood and for families deep in the Ozarks where my father served as a minister. The family a couple of doors down with four kids and less money found a box of trucks and a cloth doll on their doorstep Christmas morning. Another family, catty-corner across the street found a small dollhouse (they had two daughters).

The presents came, not from my father but my mother. J.D. Basket, the contractor who built our house and who lived behind us, would drop off scrap lumber (mostly pine) from his job sites. Nearly every kid in our neighborhood had something made on my mother’s workbench either from JD’s wood or from cloth scavenged from yard sales. While I was at school, she would set aside her miniatures and work on toys. According to Jim, by the week before Christmas, she had produced boxes of toys: cars, trucks, sailboats, cloth dolls, stuffed critters, blocks, ring-toss games, you name it.

Not only did her toys go to kids in the neighborhood, they also went to my father’s churches to be given away to families along with boxes of food and canned goods and oranges and nuts. There is no way of knowing how many toys she made between 1954, when she started, and 1969, when they moved to Virginia. I’m not even sure she kept count. But for a substantial percentage of the kids in my father’s congregations, he was married to Santa.

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