Collections Assistant Joy Whittam on past Christmas wishes, now on display as part of What’s in the Box in Hove Museum.
In 1971, aged 9, I wrote my annual letter to Santa Claus with my Christmas list of ‘wished for’ toys. My mother was an agent for Freemans mail order catalogue, so being a conscientious child – and not wanting to leave anything to chance – I picked my items from there and listed them with the page number, reference and price!
My list reflects my hobbies at the time. I was an avid book reader and spent a lot of time doing ‘making’ (sewing dolls clothes, making dolls house furniture) with a friend. On Christmas morning I was thrilled to get a Sasha baby doll and a needlework basket. I still have both; the basket is stored away and full of handmade dolls clothes.
The Sasha Baby Doll was a ‘long shot’ on the list. I had seen Sasha dolls when on holiday in Poole, Dorset, and was very taken with them as they were so different from other dolls at the time. They were also expensive.
Created by Swiss artist Sasha Morgenthaler (born 1893) her first ‘studio’ dolls were initially handmade but from 1965 were mass produced in Switzerland and then in the UK. The dolls were intended to represent children of an international world, rather than a particular culture.
My fascination with ‘making’ expanded to an interest in anything old and I spent many hours making notes about vintage toys from library books and learning makers’ marks. My childhood coincided with the growing international commercial interest in collecting antique toys and dolls, particularly in the United States. We all knew a Grandma or a Great Aunt with a china headed doll from when they were young, but these objects were taking on a new significance. The nearest I got to owning one was at a village jumble sale where I looked on with huge disappointment while a middle aged woman who was a collector paid £1 for a Victorian doll. A couple of years later, near my birthday, my parents took me to Bath, and we looked in vain in antique shops but quickly realised that even a doll in pieces was fetching £35 – way out of our league.
So fast forward 40 years – I am living in Brighton now and visiting Hove Museum, looking at the toys in the Wizards Attic with my mum and sister, and over tea and cake my mum suggests that maybe Hove might like my two Sasha dolls for their collection. I decide that maybe they are old enough now that these dolls are a piece of social history, like the antique toys on display. So I contact the Curator, and she invites me to bring my dolls in to show her. We meet up and she recognises my passion for old toys, and I tell her about my childhood knowledge gleaned from the library. She wonders ‘would I like to volunteer?’ – I am the self taught expert of 9 years old all over again, and then I am the grown up thinking: ‘how did no one at Secondary school ever tell me I could have followed my interests as a job’?
So, with a few more twists and turns of fate, here I am actually employed to work on museum collections and spend my time privileged to be in the company of ‘old things’, each object telling me it’s story and teaching me about it’s place in social history. Thank you Santa!
PS Are you wondering how I still have my letter to Santa? I wrote two copies at the time of course!
Joy Whittam, Collections Assistant
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