Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The,, Elk...OK, Carireindeerbou of Wagner!

The Wagner crafts workshop liked deer. Oh, my, did they like deer! The craftsmen and craftswomen produced deer in all the Wagner sizes from tiny one-inch critters that could fit inside a glass Christmas bulb to robust animals standing about 8 inches tall. They crafted standing deer, lying deer, running deer, and grazing deer.

Though they're often marketed as reindeer on eBay, most of these deer look more like your average white-tail. Many are peppered with white spots, and so would seem more likely to be fawns (though some species, such as sika deer, are spotted as adults, too).

Some Wagner deer clearly have a beefier look to them, with bigger antlers and thicker barrels; they appear to be elk (also called "wapiti" in North America). These animals can pass for reindeer in a pinch, particularly the gray and white variations.

I assume the latter are an example of the workshop's reuse of a mold with different flocking to produce a new species, just as the same mold was used to produce tigers, leopards, black panthers, and one version of the lioness.

But none of these Wagner deer are actually classic Christmas reindeer; they don't have the bulky bodies, big feet, or the rococo antlers of a reindeer or caribou.

What with Germany's treasure trove of Christmas lore and tradition, it does seem odd that Wagner didn't produce a really, truly reindeer for the American market.

Still, the Wagner deer are happy to pinch-hit for their Arctic cousins--and since most illustrated versions of the Santa story feature giant white-tail fawns as the "eight tiny reindeer," they won't look out of place in your Christmas village scene or on the mantelpiece hauling a sleigh.

And even though this red-nosed variant is decidedly not Rangifer tarandus, he reveals that Wagner did have the American market in mind because they went to great lengths to produce "the most famous reindeer of all"!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Wagner's Lucky Black Cats

Black cats, in American culture, have long been associated with Halloween and superstitions that blame them for bad luck--especially when they cross your path.

But this stigma isn't universal. In Great Britain, Ireland, and Japan, for example, a black cat is a symbol of good luck. Gamblers view black cats as bad luck, while sailors consider them lucky omens and prefer to have a black ship's cat.

In Germany, home of the Wagner workshop, black cats have a dual identity: an old superstition holds that if a black cat crosses your path from right to left, that's bad luck, but if it trots the opposite way, you can expect good fortune.

The Wagner crafters clearly weren't afraid of black cats, as the workshop eagerly produced them in a variety of sizes and forms.

The smallest is the little black kitten with a red ball, just the right size for a dollhouse. She has nylon whiskers, black bead eyes and nose, and a furry tail.

Very cute at just about an inch and a half in length!

The workshop was clearly very fond of posing their cats with fuzzy pompoms as playthings from an early date. Here's a black cat with a purple ball who bears the old green "monkey-head" MC Originals label (used from 1951 to 1965). Note the skinny tail--no rabbit fur for this girl! She also has the paper-wrapped wire-stem legs typical of so many Wagner animals ranging from pigs and mice to horses and giraffes.

Later models of the cat-with-ball featured fur tails and a red pompom, but the body was now a one-piece unit with thick legs. The one below is a kitty that features a Wagner Kunstlerschutz label of the type used from 1966 to 1983.

This cat, below, is stockier and about a quarter-inch taller than the one above. She was made more recently, as she bears a label used between 1990 and 1998. She also has a much more luxurious tail.

 The black cat really came into its glory with the creation of Wagner's Halloween cat. This one stands nearly an inch taller than the pompom-playing version. It also boasts the same paper-wrapped wire legs of its ancestor, an incredibly bouffant tail, and a maniacal expression complete with white teeth. Below are two versions, one without any neckwear and one sporting a jaunty orange bow for the holiday.

I love how the Halloween cat has a classic face reminiscent of the puss on a vintage Halloween cat made by Beistle, a company that's made holiday decor since 1900.

Far more placid than the feisty Halloween cat is the sitting kittycat. This standard cat, like the one with the arched back and pompom farther up on this page, was made not only in black but also in white, gray, and tabby colors.

You can see this one's tail has "rusted," or turned somewhat reddish brown--this even happens to live black animals when their coats bake in sunlight. I assume this cat's home was on a shelf near a window. I know, Sherlockian, right?

Happy Halloween!

Monday, March 12, 2012

As Irish as Paddy's Pig, Wagner Style

So what's the story behind the weird little green pig that the Wagner workshop produced?

Clearly, at a glance, anybody would know that the shamrock-toting swine is a St. Patrick's Day ornament, but it gave me a fun excuse to traipse around and look for more information about this popular symbol of luck and Eire (something that I love to do, being both an information packrat and half-Irish).

The pig has long served as a symbol of luck as well as Ireland. Its association with luck is certainly a dubious one for the pig, because the pig itself was unlucky in that it provided an excellent source of food and prosperity for its owner. But in a time when food, particularly protein-rich food, wasn't terribly easy to come by, being in possession of a fat pig meant your family was very fortunate indeed.

In Ireland, according to Irish chef Darina Allen, early pigs were "thin, scrawny and vicious in temperament," capable of leaping over a fence. They were raised mainly on beech and oak nuts, which the pigs obtained by feeding in woodlands.

But once the potato was introduced into Ireland (sometime in the 1600s) and evolved into a staple food of the poor (by the early 1700s), people could raise their pigs closer to home; Allen writes, "After the widespread adoption of the potato, virtually every hovel could afford to rear a pig in good years, because the animal could be fed on surplus potatoes, potato skins and sour milk."

Indeed, pigs ate nearly anything and everything, and fattened nicely on this random fare. When the pig finally had its rendezvous with the butcher's knife, every bit of it was put to use. Pigs "were prized possessions," says Allen, "not only providing several months' supply of meat for the household, but also leaving enough over to share with neighbors."

This image includes a lucky sweep.
So important was the pig to a family living a hardscrabble life that it earned the nickname of "the gentleman who pays the rent." Another luck-and-swine saying is "on the pig's back," the literal translation of the Gaelic phrase ar mhuin na muice, a colloquialism that means "well off" or, well, living "high on the hog."

The pig's ubiquity on Irish farms naturally evolved into an association with Irish nationality itself, just as a gentle cow is linked with imagery of Swiss mountainsides or a longhorn steer with the western United States.

Wagner's take on the popular piggy is a bright green little fellow who carries a shamrock in his mouth--a gold one, no less, thus adding the lucky symbolism of the clover with that of the gold coin.

My own little Paddy's pig was made after German unification (his tag says Wagner Handwork Germany, and the lack of a "West" before "Germany" shows that he's a post-1990 creation). 

He's got bright orange eyes and has something of the crazed look that you'll often find on the earliest Wagners, the ones that bear the green-and-white labels reading "M.C. Originals" that show a chimpanzee's face.

Incidentally, Germany itself is as familiar with the notion of the lucky pig as Ireland is (and like the Irish, the Germans--famous for cuisine that includes pork deli meats and sausages--made use of the pig from snout to tail).

The German phrase Schwein haben ("to have pig") means, like "on the pig's back," that a person has come into good fortune and is a Glucksschwein, or "lucky pig."

The pigs that cavort among shamrocks on vintage St. Patrick's Day cards from Ireland are matched by German usage of pigs as symbols of good luck on greeting cards, as ornaments, and the like.

This association is celebrated during the Christmas holidays when children receive marzipan pigs as a token for good luck in the year ahead.

I'd be curious to know if any of you have other variations on the Wagner Paddy's Pig!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

It's Groundhog Day! Well, it is on this blog.

OK, so I meant to launch this little Wagner Handwork (Kunstlerschutz) animal website on Groundhog Day. But I saw my shadow and retreated to my burrow instead.

However, having gotten over the horror of the aforementioned shadow, I've crept back out, and despite what the calendar says I'm going to feature the Wagner version of a groundhog as the first critter.

He's known as a groundhog (or woodchuck, or whistlepig) here in the United States, though it's unlikely that his creators called him that: they probably called this piece a marmot.

North America and Europe are home to various species of marmots (which are ground squirrels). The groundhog is one of several marmot species found in the United States.

In Europe, hedgehogs were traditionally the weather forecasters, but immigrants to the United States didn't find those prickly creatures here, so they substituted the groundhog. 

Because Wagner animals were handmade, each individual animal has its own appearance (sometimes quite a quirky one). 

In many Wagner species, however, it's easy to see a general trend as the piece evolved over the decades. The groundhog, for example, seems to start out portly and over time got a bit taller and leaner.

I would say, "That's odd," except it's already pretty odd to be taking pictures of small flocked animals and comparing them, so I'm not one to talk. However, it is surprising that some of the marmots seem to have an important marmotty part missing:
"No fair! How come he's got whiskers, and I don't?"