Czech Miniature Wooden Furniture: Schowanek, Tofa, Detoa
by Rebecca Green
Tofa furniture in a homemade Australian house. (The dolls are not by Tofa.) Photo © Rebecca Green
TOFA was a Czech company which made wooden toys, including dolls house furniture. Some is very well known, especially the red and yellow or natural wood furniture produced in the 1970s.
Tofa living room furniture in a Woodworker Alpine Villa house. Photo © Patty Worsdale
The name TOFA comes from the first letters of the English words TOys FActory. TOFA was a national company in Czechoslovakia, formed in the 1950s. Its headquarters were initially in Albrechtice (or Albrechtsdorf in German; it was within the German Sudetenland area) near the Jizera mountains in northern Bohemia.
Map showing locations relevant to Tofa. In the Czech Republic, from the top, yellow: Desna, in front of green: Albrechtice; blue: Semily; red: Stará Paka; purple: Zlásmuky; pink: Tlumačov. Lower left, red pin: Salzburg, in Austria; red marker with A: Piding in Bavaria, Germany. Map created in Google Maps.
The Schowanek factory in Albrechtsdorf/Albrechtice: above, ca 1940 (from www.cyklotoulkytv.cz) and below, as it is today (from www.tanvaldsko.info).
The TOFA Albrechtsdorf/Albrechtice factory had been founded ca 1908 by Johann Schowanek. He had begun producing wooden products for the textile industry in nearby Dessendorf / Desná in 1896, but after moving to Albrechtice, expanded in size and in range, becoming well known as a manufacturer of drum-polished and stained wooden products, including toys, beads and costume jewellery.
Set of Schowanek building blocks, ca 1930s. The manufacturer's name is stated on the enclosed leaflet as J. Schowanek, Albrechtsdorf, Isergebirge, Sudeten. Photo © ebay.de seller sammlerberater (sadly, I was outbid on this set)
The procedure of drum-polishing and staining was either invented or perfected by Schowanek around 1908. A good explanation of the process is given on the website of a construction toy collector (Baukastensammler). It involves the cut or turned wooden parts being placed in drums, also made of wood, which are usually hexagonal or octagonal. Pumice stone is placed in the drums with the wooden pieces, and the drums are then tilted and turned at various angles, grinding and polishing the wood without damaging it. After drying, the next step is dyeing the polished wood by immersion in coloured stains. Drum-polished wood has a fine, silky surface, and the edges of the blocks are rounded off by the process itself. Both the colour and the final layer of varnish penetrate deeper into the wood than in conventional methods, and make the block water- and impact-resistant.
Schowanek building blocks, ca 1930s. Photo © ebay.de seller sammlerberater
NEW: Tomas has sent photos of a Schowanek board game he owns, called "Prsi, prsi, jen se leje" (It's raining, it's raining, it's pouring). As he says, it's not a dolls house or furniture, but it is very cute!
Schowanek board game "Prsi, prsi, jen se leje" (It's raining, it's raining, it's pouring), 1944. Photo © Tomas
Here's a closer view of the game pieces - it's even possible that these figures of a nurse with a pram could find their way into dolls house nurseries!
Schowanek board game pieces, 1944. Photos © Tomas
During World War II, the Schowanek factory in Albrechtsdorf/Albrechtice made perfect 1:50 scale models of the Allied Forces' aircraft and shipping, so that Luftwaffe pilots could learn to distinguish enemy targets. After the war, the factory was nationalised. Hans Schowanek, son of Johann, left Czechoslovakia. He moved first to Salzburg, in Austria, where he began making toys again, and then, in 1949, established a factory in Piding in nearby south-eastern Bavaria, in West Germany.
Among their toys, Schowanek is famous for their construction sets – not just sets of building blocks and beads, but kits of polished and stained wooden components from which to construct detailed cars, planes, trains, motorcycles and villages. Schowanek also made dolls house furniture. Marion Osborne has shared photos of three boxed sets, and Swantje Köhler’s Lexikon der Puppenstuben und Puppenhäuser (Lexicon of Dolls' Roomboxes and Dolls' Houses) shows a fourth. The first of Marion’s sets is still sewn into position in the box, and clearly came ready-made, rather than as a construction set. All the sets, however, are similar to the construction sets in that they have parts that slot into each other.
NEW: Tomas has sent a link to a Schowanek living room set [sorry, this link is no longer working], which is in the Nuremberg Toy Museum. It is a construction set, and is shown in its box in its component parts.
Schowanek kitchen set: box lid with illustration. Photo © Marion Osborne
Schowanek kitchen set: contents never removed from box. Photo © Marion Osborne
Schowanek boxed kitchen set: detail of cabinet (above); clock and stool (below). Photos © Marion Osborne
Schowanek dining room set: box lid with illustration and logo. Photos © Marion Osborne
Schowanek dining room set: complete set. Photos © Marion Osborne
Schowanek dining room set: dining table and chairs. Photos © Marion Osborne
Schowanek dining room set: above, shelving units; below, easy chair and small tables. Photos © Marion Osborne
Schowanek hunting lodge set: box lid with illustration and logo. Photo © Marion Osborne
Schowanek hunting lodge set: complete set. Photo © Marion Osborne
Schowanek hunting lodge set: details of gun rack (above) and guns (below). Photos © Marion Osborne
I am uncertain of the dates of these Schowanek furniture sets. Swantje Köhler, researching for the Lexikon, found information that Schowanek were producers of dolls' furniture and houses in 1934, made construction sets of all kinds for houses, log cabins and furniture in 1938, and after WWII, they showed "simple, beautifully executed dolls furniture" at the 1950 Nuremberg Toy Fair. The construction toy website mentioned above shows boxed sets without the Schowanek name on the lid, which that collector dates to pre 1928. Other boxed sets with a Schowanek logo with long flourishes above and below the name (from the top of the S and the bottom of the k) are dated from 1928 (when a large catalogue was produced) through the 1930s. Post-war sets, produced in Austria or in Germany, have as the logo a shield saying Original Schowanek.
Schowanek bead figure set, Made in Germany, Western Zone. Note shield logo. © Joachim Kleindienst, www.baukastensammler.de
If this dating of the logos and label types is correct, Marion Osborne’s first set would date from the 1920s, before 1928. The other two sets, and the one shown in the Lexikon (shown as 1950 on the information then available to author / researcher Swantje Köhler), would date from ca 1928 – ca 1938. I hope we can learn more about Schowanek miniature furniture, both before and after WWII. I would love to know if any sets of furniture are shown in the 1928 Schowanek catalogue!
TOFA and Detoa
The former TOFA factory in Semily. Photo © Luděk Kovář, Wikimedia Commons
Back in Czechoslovakia, after nationalisation and the formation of TOFA, production of wooden toys moved from Albrechtsdorf/Albrechtice to one of the factories in Semily (about 30 km south of Albrechtice), which had been built in 1892 as a weaving mill and starch plant. (There was already a tradition of making toys in Semily: the company Drabek & Company had produced wooden beads and toys here, but could not compete with Schowanek in that field.) In 1958, management of TOFA was also transferred to Semily, as it was easier to access by public transport. The main buildings of TOFA’s Semily toy factory are now derelict, although a few smaller warehouses on the site are still in use.
TOFA was exported through the Czechoslovakian national export board Pragoexport. Ad from UK publication 'Toys International', March 1964.
The Albrechtice factory changed their production line to mechanisms for upright and grand pianos, for which they were world-renowned. TOFA also had factories in other parts of Czechoslovakia. The other Semily factory manufactured drying kilns, and also had a coffin-making shop (the TOFA trademark did not apply to coffins, however). The fourth TOFA factory, in Zásmuky (east of Prague), produced abacuses, pull toys and board games, while the factory in Tlumačov (east of Brno) made blackboards and cots, and the one in Stará Paka (20 km south-east of Semily) made picture blocks and folding cube puzzles. (Other TOFA products included jigsaw puzzles and printing and packaging products.)
Tofa wooden and cloth finger puppets. Tofa did not make dolls, but did make both animal and human finger puppets, wooden bead figures (see photo above), wooden press up figures, and wooden characters for magnetic toy theatres. Photos © Rebecca Green
In 1989, democracy was restored in Czechoslovakia, and in the years following, the TOFA factories were privatised separately. TOFA Albrechtice became DETOA Albrechtice in about 1993; this company and its owner, Jaroslav Zeman, repurchased the rights to the trademark TOFA in 2008. The name DETOA derives from "de TOFA Albrechtice", with 'de' being 'of' in French. It had been registered in the 1950s, when the French language was very popular, but was not used by the company until they needed a name to distinguish the newly privatised TOFA Albrechtice from TOFA Semily. DETOA is still producing wooden toys, beads and piano parts today, although dolls house furniture is no longer included in their range. TOFA Stará Paka has operated under the name TOPA TOYS since 1997, and still makes picture blocks.
TOFA dolls house furniture
Tofa bead construction set: box lid showing furniture. Photo © Rebecca Green
The style of this box, especially the picture attached to the lid, is the same as the Schowanek set of building blocks shown above, and the set probably dates to quite early after nationalisation. It is a set of square beads, in polished, stained wood, with diagrams for making various items. The box lid illustrates furniture made from the beads – beds, bedside cabinets, wardrobes or cupboards, a sofa and rug, a table and chairs, and a picture on the wall. The base of the box is stamped Made in Czecho-slovakia.
Tofa bead construction set: remaining contents. Photo © Rebecca Green
The well-known range of red with polished natural or yellow stained wood was available during the 1970s. We don’t know when it was first produced, nor when it went out of production. It may have been made mainly for export.
Czech visitors to Gil Bomber’s dolls house museum have commented that they played with TOFA furniture, coloured green rather than red, in preschool. Ginny Petty, a former preschool teacher from the US, travelled in Czechoslovakia at least eight times from 1975 through 1995, and visited dozens of toy stores, but never saw it for sale within the Czech Republic/Slovakia. In 1986, she travelled with a group visiting day care centres and schools in the USSR (and one in Prague). She remembers that in the day care centres, there would be some special toys that the teachers would keep on a high shelf and then take them down to let the children quietly use them, rather than leave them on an open shelf like they would do in an American preschool. She also noticed a lot of items in the USSR schools that were different from those in the public toy stores. A 1980 article on Tofa in Das Spielzeug informs us that Tofa ran a training institute and held biannual symposia on toys. These were attended by kindergarten and school directors and educators, as well as toy retailers. Probably schools had sources of supply not available to the public.
NEW: Gil Bomber has discovered photos of a boxed pale blue and yellow bedroom set on a website of vintage Czech toys.
Many of the boxes in which this range was sold in the West do not carry a manufacturer's name or logo. The boxes which show just the furniture are probably earlier, while the boxes on which a girl's head appears are probably later.
Dolls House Furniture made of polished wood with opening doors. Above, lid for lounge set; below, lid for bedroom set. Photos © Rebecca Green
Bases of the lounge and bedroom boxes shown above, stamped with the word 'Foreign'. Photo © Rebecca Green
Boxed kitchen set, photo © anonymous ebay seller
Dolls House Furniture, Smooth finished wood, non-toxic colours. Above, box for a dining suite (which has had a second life as a Midnight Feast Box!), photo © Rebecca Green. Below and bottom, lounge suite, never removed from box. Box states 'Made in Czechoslovakia'. Photos © Ginny Petty
Four easy chairs and small table in box showing Tofa logo, photo © anonymous ebay seller
I know of two catalogues offering this well-known range of dolls house furniture for sale. In Denmark, the 1972 and 1975 catalogues from Daells Varehus (courtesy Helle Kielstrup) show a 5 piece living room set (sofa and chairs are yellow), 5 piece kitchen set (washing machine, stove, square natural wood table and 2 chairs), 7 piece dining room set (hutch, sideboard, round red table and 4 red chairs), 3 piece bedroom set (bed with yellow base, dressing table, wardrobe). The handles on kitchen and bedroom doors are spherical.
5 piece lounge set. Photo © Rebecca Green
Above, closeup of lounge chairs and sofa; below, back of TV and base of coffee table with remains of label. Photos © Rebecca Green
6 piece dining room set. Photos © Rebecca Green
(Note: not all sets consisting of a round table and chairs like this are TOFA brand. Similar sets were also made in Germany and in Japan. Here is one set stamped 'Japan' on the base of each piece:
Not all sets from Japan are stamped, however.)
I have two sideboards, one with spherical handles (on the right above) and one with flat round handles. I am not sure, but I think the flat round handles are probably later. Below, the backing is different (spherical handles still on the right), while the inside is the same (bottom photo). Photos © Rebecca Green
4 piece bedroom set, with spherical handles.
Two beds, one with a natural wood base and one with a yellow stained wood base. I don't know which is earlier, or if both were available at the same time. (The bed on the right has blue fabric glued to the wood. The bed on the left shows signs of something having been removed from the base.) Photos © Rebecca Green.
Wardrobe and dressing table, above: open, and below: backs. The dressing table is entirely wood, while the wardrobe has a card back. Photos © Rebecca Green.
In the US, the 1977/78 FAO Schwarz catalogue shows sets which are described as “scaled 1” to 1’ tall”. As the later range was made in both 1/16th and 1/12th scales, perhaps this range was too – and as FAO Schwarz is known to have had exclusive deals with some suppliers, the 12th scale sets may have been made especially for them. Other than scale, they appear identical to the well-known pieces in 16th scale. 6 piece kitchen set (washing machine, stove, square natural wood table and 2 chairs, plus hutch), 6 piece dining room set (sideboard, round red table and 4 red chairs), 5 piece living room set, 4 piece bedroom set (bed, dressing table, bedside table, wardrobe). My copy of this ad (courtesy Marion Osborne) is black & white (I don’t know if the original is colour or b&w), so it is not possible to say if any of the pieces are yellow, or all natural wood. Again, it’s hard to tell, but the handles on the sideboard could perhaps be round and flat.
These ads do not show a sink, which I have. It has the round flat handles, so was probably included late in the production of this range.
My Tofa kitchen: 7 pieces, including a washing machine, sink, stove, hutch, square table and two chairs. Photo © Rebecca Green.
Tofa washing machine, sink and stove. The washing machine and stove are unusual for Tofa pieces in being made of solid blocks of wood - the washing machine base and side view of the stove are shown below. Photos © Rebecca Green.
My sink, like one of my sideboards, has flat handles, which I think is a later feature than spherical handles. Both have paper labels, but while the sideboard just says 'Foreign', the sink says 'Made in Czechoslovakia'. Photos © Rebecca Green.
The base of the kitchen table is impressed with the word 'Foreign'. Photo © Rebecca Green.
In the sink itself are the embossed letters PRY. Does this mean something to Czech readers? Photo © Rebecca Green.
Marion Osborne has two other pieces which I believe appeared late in the production of this range. They are a TV on a short stand, rather than on legs, and a small cabinet which is on legs, and which has a shelf with a drop-down door. (Unlike all the Tofa pieces seen so far, the legs and handle on this cabinet are black.) These came together as a set in a box decorated with a pattern of the Tofa logo and drawings of Tofa toys.
TV on short stand and small cabinet on legs, with original box. Photo © Marion Osborne
Detail of the patterned Tofa box. Scan © Marion Osborne
As noted above, we don’t know when production of this modern-style red and yellow/natural range ceased.
In 1980, a very abstract, stylised dolls house set was reported in the German toy trade magazine Das Spielzeug. The furnishings and people are solid pieces of wood - building blocks, really – and come with sheets of natural wood which slot together to form walls and a floor. The illustration is in black and white, but the block furnishings look as if they are made of TOFA’s signature stained wood in bright, dark colours. I have not seen one of these sets – unless it was always kept in the original box, it would be very hard to distinguish these pieces from any other wooden building blocks.
Tofa reportedly had a product range of almost 250 items at this time, and exported to 57 countries.
Tofa 'Home' wooden construction set, designed by M. Hybínová, from Das Spielzeug February 1980.
Then, from about the mid 1980s until the mid 1990s, a folk or country-style range was made of polished natural wood, with some painted decoration. It was packaged in boxes which have sides that show the interior and exterior of a little Czech cottage. (Thanks to Ginny Petty for her detailed information on the sets that she bought during this decade.)
Tofa ABC Dolls House Furniture: top of box, above; front of box showing front of cottage, below. Photos © Rebecca Green
Tofa ABC Dolls House Furniture: left side of box showing windows in cottage wall, above; right side of box showing wheel on cottage wall, below. Photos © Rebecca Green
Tofa ABC Dolls House Furniture: Above, clear 'window' on back of box showing furniture inside. The box reads 'Non Toxic Wooden Toy. 3-5 Years / Jahre. Made in Czechoslovakia." Below, the box opened, with the lid forming the roof, displaying the interior walls of the cottage inside. Photos © Rebecca Green
The first dated TOFA folk-style bedroom and dining room in 1/16th scale was bought by Ginny in Helsinki, during a visit to Finland in 1985.
Tofa ABC 16th scale bedroom set (above) and dining room set (below), both purchased in 1985. Photos © Ginny Petty
In 1986, in the US, Ginny purchased a set of 1/12th scale furnishings in this design at the shop Pier 1. The set included a single bed, cradle, chest, and a table with 4 chairs. (Ginny comments that she has had to buy a second bed separately, and even an entire second set, in order to get two beds, as the sets of this range always only came with one single bed!) The bed is exactly 6 inches between headboard and footboard so it is an exact 1:12 scale. The box has a printed wood grain on both the outside and inner card, rather than a cottage design.
12th scale Tofa ABC folk-style furniture in box, purchased 1986. Photos © Ginny Petty
12th scale Tofa ABC folk-style furniture. The chest from the 16th scale set sits in front of the 12th scale chest for comparison. (The rooster is not Tofa.) Photos © Ginny Petty
In 1988, in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia, Ginny purchased another 16th scale dining set, this time with four chairs, rather than two, but without the bench and chest which the set she’d bought earlier have.
Democracy was restored in Czechoslovakia in 1989, after which the Tofa factories were privatised. Toy production was moved back from Semily to the Albrechtice factory, which was privatised as Detoa in 1993. Ginny made several visits to the country during 1990-1995, but does not remember seeing any of this dolls house furniture in toy shops at the time. It seems possible that there was a break in production during this period. She did find a second 1/16th bedroom set, made by Detoa, in Germany in 1995. The decorations on this set are slightly different from the set purchased in 1985 - the decoration on the Detoa bed is positioned higher up than on the older Tofa one, while on the box, the Detoa name appears, and the “floor” now has a wood-grain surface (the Tofa sets we have seen had either plain yellow or a plank design).
Detoa ABC dolls house furniture, 16th scale folk-style, purchased 1995 in Germany. Photos © Ginny Petty
Although dolls house furniture does not currently appear on the Detoa website's product list, another range of Detoa wooden furniture, which looks quite contemporary, can be seen in photos of displays in the Schowanek Museum.
Display of Detoa Wooden Furniture box and kitchen set in the Vila Schowanek Museum. Photo © Vilaschowanek
Display of Detoa bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and dining room furniture in the Vila Schowanek Museum. Photos © Vilaschowanek
Another Detoa Wooden Furniture bedroom set. Photo from Polish auction site Czterykaty.pl
If you know of other dolls house furniture, or even dolls houses or roomboxes, produced by Schowanek, Tofa or Detoa, or have more information about the dates of manufacture, I would love to hear from you.
Many thanks to my father, Kevin Green, for translating the Czech Wikipedia entry on Tofa, without which I would know far less about Tofa, especially its links to Schowanek and Detoa. Thanks also to the generosity of Marion Osborne for sharing photos of her Schowanek sets, to Ginny Petty for photos and information about her Tofa and Detoa sets, to Gil Bomber for help in clarifying the origins of the DETOA name, and Swantje Köhler for sharing her research.