Mathew's Animated Empire Vaudeville Toy Theatre ca 1920s-30s
by Celia Thomas of KT Miniatures
Theatre Fully Erected
I know this is not a dolls house or miniature as such but I think that many of us who are passionate about dolls houses and miniatures, could not fail to find this little toy theatre interesting. Just occasionally, along with old dolls houses, I am offered other vintage items too and this is how I acquired the Mathews Animated Empire Vaudeville Toy Theatre.
The previous owner grew up during wartime Britain in the 1940s and was given this little theatre when she was still very young. Although she might have been given it brand new and remembers it being in immaculate condition when she first had it, of course being wartime it could have come to her second-hand. I understand that this theatre was thought to have been manufactured between the two world wars ie. 1920s - 1930s and then wartime manufacturing would have probably ceased altogether. Very little is known about it although I believe the manufacturer’s full name was Mathews & Co Ltd and was based in Leicester (UK). A museum website that I came across suggested that this particular set was possibly produced in the early 1900s but a toy theatre specialist suggests that this is very much Art Deco in design and was manufactured between the 1st and 2nd World War years. I have to say that I think I agree more with the latter.
The Box Is Still Intact Too
On the whole, even though it has been torn in places plus there is some child’s scribble, overall it is in good condition. It appears to have been manufactured from a reinforced cardboard, very similar to the leatherboard that the 1930s Dinky Dolly Varden dolls houses were made from. The original box still remains and it tells us on the front “Life like variety artistes”......and goes on to say “A never ending source of amusement for boys and girls.” The box is in a slightly battered condition and all the edges have been heavily taped over the years to keep it all together.
The Theatre Is Easily Erected
The theatre itself measures 17 1/4" in width x 13 1/4" high x 4" deep and the stage is easily erected by gently pulling into shape. Similarly it is easy to put away again, by gently folding it in concertina style. This has sat up in a loft in its box for several decades I gather and the colours are still gloriously vibrant.
The Remaining Puppets Can Be Seen Here
There would have been ten puppets originally and most are still in existence, although all that’s left of poor “Humpty Dumpty” are his legs and "Sylvette " has lost a foot. The others are in excellent condition with each having a taped loop on the back where a metal rod is inserted. These rods are replacements but I am told by the previous owner that they are more or less identical to the original. Due to modern health & safety issues these days, it is unlikely that these rods would be allowed in a child’s toy theatre.....in the wrong hands, these could undoubtedly be a little dangerous! However I have since found a photo of another of these sets and there appears to be a little wooden stopper or cork “bit” on the handle end which would definitely have made it safer. The puppets are constructed in such a way that they can jig and dance when moving the rod....absolutely exquisite.
There are such delightful characters as 'Jolly Jinks - The Pierrot', 'Pauline & Her Performing Pony Snowdrop', 'Goldy Locks & Her Performing Bear' and 'Sylvette - The Glittering Transformation Dancer', amongst others. My favourite is 'TOM' – ('The Piper's Son With His Pig'), fully clad in his Scotsman’s regalia including his kilt and sporran; a character from the old nursery rhyme. Though it has to be said that attitudes were very different back then and one or two of the little theatre characters could be considered offensive nowadays.
Tom The Piper’s Son & His Pig
There is an open groove along the back of the theatre wall and the rods were inserted through this in order to manipulate the characters or alternatively they could be manipulated from above. To be honest, after much experimenting (great fun) I found that certain puppets were more versatile if the rods were held from up above, as seen in the photo with Tom and his pig.
The Programme – GOD SAVE THE KING!
Enchantingly, also included in the box is the little Programme listing the characters in order of appearance, starting off with an "Overture" and ends in "GOD SAVE THE KING"!
This is such a beautiful toy and one that gave many hours of pleasure to the previous owner and her little friends, during an era that was ....oh so long ago. How sad to think that it has spent many years sitting in a box unseen. On the other hand though, because it was lovingly stored away, this whole set is in amazing condition. Due to the sheer fact that this theatre was made out of cardboard, I suspect many of these simply did not survive so are now quite rare. Over time with constant handling from children they could have literally just fallen apart and understandably thrown away.
They just don’t make toys like this anymore do they?
I did put this up for sale originally but do you know...... I simply could not part with it so have kept it. I am now hoping to reproduce this whole boxed theatre set in miniature very soon and will be available on www.ktminiatures.com
© Photos & Text By Celia Thomas - KT Miniatures 2011.
More on Mathews & Co by Rebecca Green
I am always interested to know more about the companies and people behind the miniatures we collect, and when I read Celia’s article, I was intrigued by “Mathews & Co”.
So I did a little research, using the online sources I use for researching family history. British telephone directories from 1880 – 1984 can be searched on ancestry.com, and I found a T. Mathews & Co Ltd, Ticket Writers, in Leicester (firstly in Short St, and then in Sandiacre St), in the telephone directories of 1921-1965.
I had to look up ticket writers – it seems that they have to do mainly with signs and displays inside shops, on paper and cardboard, with perhaps some overlap with sign writers.
With an initial as well as a name, I then googled “T. Mathews & Co”, and found:
- a booklet about the destruction of a zeppelin in 1916, published by T. Mathews & Co, Leicester;
- some postcards of the same event, which also give a London address: "Printed and published by T Mathews & Co Ltd, Leicester, London Office 30 St Andrews Hill E.C.";
- a patent dated 1933 for collapsible show cards - the applicants are T. Mathews & Co Ltd and Thomas Jarvis, of that company;
- a folding die-cut display for Golden Medal Hosiery, very interestingly marked T. Mathews & Co Lithographers N.Y. I looked up the New York City Directory (also available on ancestry.com), and sure enough, T Mathews & Co Ltd (Leicester, England), had an office there - 437 5th Avenue (Rm 822), Robert I Alberts manager, litho - in 1925, and no doubt other years too;
Photo: Cowan's Auctions
- another theatre, described in the auction listing as “a Boxed "Mathews Empire Theatre of Varieties" by T Mathews & Co., with pictorial lid, containing a folding card stage, ten articulated card figures including Charlie Chaplin, minstrel and clowns, and other accessories.” This looks to me older than Celia’s theatre, with designs more typical of the first two decades of the 20th century;
Photo: Tennants Auctioneers, Yorkshire: The Denby Collection of Fine Toys
- and, through Google Books, a mention in a journal from 1909 called Printers' Ink of T. Mathews & Co., 12 Short St., Leicester, Eng. United States Representative UK. Frank A. Springer, 2809 Shenandoah Avenue, St. Louis.
So who was T. Mathews? I thought it was possible that T. Mathews might appear in the 1911 census of England, which can be searched on findmypast.co.uk. Sure enough, Thomas Mathews, master lithographer, appears - living in Leicester, but born in Bloomsbury, in London, in 1860. Earlier censuses show that he had been in Leicester for at least 20 years - as a show card designer in 1891, then a lithographer in 1901, and then, by 1911, a master lithographer employing others. The 1911 census also told me that he and his wife Annie had no children (women were asked to state the number of children born to them, and the number still living; Annie answered none to both questions).
I also found a Thomas Jarvis who was born in 1880, and was the manager of a printing works in Leicester. He was probably the Thomas Jarvis named on the 1933 patent, and he may well have been running the company by then - a Thomas Mathews died in Leicester aged 60 in 1920. As T. Mathews & Co continued until 1965, another manager probably succeeded Thomas Jarvis, too.
So T. Mathews & Co Ltd, ticket writers and lithographers, were based in Leicester (UK), with offices in London and New York, and were in existence from before 1909 until 1965. Much of what they produced - shop signs and display cases - would be classed as ephemera, not intended to be kept and used over a long period of time. The toy theatres, however, were of a different nature, and I wonder if there were other similar products, such as folding cardboard dolls houses or paper dolls?