Object of the Month
Longfellow House - Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site has a large museum collection consisting of thousands of objects, many of which are not regularly displayed in the house's furnished exhibit rooms. Every month, an object will be featured on this page, providing a look at an unusual piece from the collection.
By the mid-19th century toy making had become a serious business that saw some manufacturers producing complex and expensive pieces such as the tumbling doll pictured above. The toy came with its own box which served not only as a means of storage, but could also be arranged to form a series of steps or platforms on which the doll performed. The lid of the box was removed, inverted and placed back on the top to form the upper two tiers of the step arrangement while a lower drawer which held the doll when not in use was pulled halfway out of the bottom of the box to form the lowest step. The doll was then placed on the top and engaged in a series of back-flips to travel from the highest level to the surface upon which the entire assembly was placed. A series of weights, often made with mercury, worked with gravity and momentum to enable the doll to execute the flips. In function these tumbling dolls could be considered as ancestors of the famous 20th century walking spring toy, the Slinky™.
The original form of this tumbling doll may have come from Japan where similar pieces were being made by about 1700. Tumbling toys were also popular in China. By the mid-19th century these tumbling dolls were being manufactured by European toy-makers, especially in Germany. Featuring finely detailed figures and painted or paper covered boxes, these toys were intended for the children of wealthy families and would have amused both boys and girls. Which member of the Longfellow family owned or purchased this particular item is unknown. The Longfellow children had a number of very fine toys imported from Europe and this doll could have belonged to any one of them.