Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Sing-Along with Breyer

Oh, give me a home
where the buffalo roam,
And the deer
and the antelope
Where seldom is heard
a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Where the air is so pure, the zephyrs so free,
The breezes
so balmy and light,
That I would not exchange my home
on the range
For all of the cities
so bright. 
Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

How often at night when the heavens

are bright
With the light from the glittering stars
Have I stood here amazed
and asked as I gazed
If their glory
exceeds that of ours.
Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.*

*All photos courtesy of Identify Your Breyer

Sunday, 15 September 2019

My Little Breyer Gets No Respect

Well, despite their big push for help from their fan base, it seems that Breyer didn't make the short list for the Toy Hall of Fame.

One collectible horse manufacturer did, however -- Hasbro, with their My Little Pony franchise.

Now I'm not gonna lie:  I did write a letter of support for Breyer's nomination and I would have loved to see them inducted into the Hall.  But I think the reason I wanted them to be there is so that they would get some respect within the larger toy world, and perhaps the reason they didn't get short-listed is because they're in some ways lacking that respect.

I mean, Breyer horses are not a household name in the way that My Little Ponies are.  While both companies manufacture horse-shaped objects, Breyer's growth in the marketplace has been slow and steady, while My Little Ponies basically took off running from the start.

In terms of history and staying power, Breyer horses have it hooves down over My Little Ponies.  Breyer horses have been manufactured continuously since 1950, whereas My Little Ponies were born as recently as 1982 and have gone through several reboots in the 37 years since their first appearance.
My Little Pony image courtesy of the Toy Hall of Fame

But it was not until Breyer began producing hairy ponies (Dapples) for kids in 1995, that they started competing directly with more toy-like collectible horses.  Initially, their offerings were like much-improved Grand Champions, with horse-like conformation but exaggerated expressions and copious hair. It was not until 2008, with the addition of the even more cartoonish Pony Gals, that Breyer started to take on My Little Ponies on their own terms.  

Once they got into the market, they did a good job of it though.  Today, for instance, there is little difference between Breyer's Color Change bath toys like Ella and Jasmine, and My Little Pony's Color Changing Magic Bath Figures featuring Twilight Sparkle, Pinkie Pie, and Rainbow Dash -- except that the Breyer's change of pigment is a lot more dramatic in comparison.
Ella Color Change Surprise image courtesy of Identify Your Breyer

But despite Breyer's rather late entry into this market, and the admittedly superior quality of many of their products, Breyer is not the go-to choice for a horse figurine that, as the Toy Hall of Fame noted, "encourages children in traditional forms of doll play—fantasy, storytelling, hair grooming, and collecting."  And it doesn't have to be.  

Breyer's main line of Traditional, Classic, and Stablemate-sized figurines are the product Breyer is and should be known for.  These figurines too, encourage fantasy, storytelling, and collecting, among other things.  But the problem remains that when the average toy shopper thinks about collectible horses, that shopper thinks "My Little Ponies" and not "Breyers."

Ironically, Breyer collections often last the lifetime of the collector, whereas I suspect that My Little Pony collections more often tend to be discarded as their collectors age. Not all, of course -- there are collectors for everything and there are some serious My Little Pony collectors out there -- not just girls and women but also the infamous "Bronies" or male My Little Pony fans.

So why are My Little Ponies in and Breyers out of consideration for inclusion in the Toy Hall of Fame?  Well, there will probably be as many theories out there as there are fans, but here are my thoughts for what they're worth:

As I've already noted, Breyer lacks a certain amount of name recognition amongst the general public,  They have never had a huge media buy to promote their products.  Yes, there are magazine ads in equestrian publications, and there have been a couple of stabs at television advertising, but nothing near the media blitz that many other toy company campaigns entail.  Breyer puts up impressive displays at New York's annual American International Toy Fair, but if you watch the YouTube videos that surface during and after that fair you'll quickly note that other toy companies (like Hasbro) get many more views and seem to have bigger crowds elbowing each other out of the way to get the first view of all their new products.

To give them credit, Breyer has embraced social media with a presence on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter.  But these efforts primarily reach existing fans rather than seeking to expand the market.

Also, speaking as a Canadian, I have to say that Breyer does not have a great international presence.  I could easily walk into any toy store anywhere in my home town and find any of the other toys nominated as Hall of Fame finalists, but I can't say the same for Breyers, which are available in only a handful of stores.  I suspect that the same is true of other countries.

So, to reiterate, I think a lack of name recognition and availability might be scuttling Breyer's chances to enter the Toy Hall of Fame.  But I could be way off base on this.

At any rate, although it might seem like a betrayal, I'm actually quite pleased to see My Little Ponies make the short list.  The more collectible horses, the merrier, for me.  I wasn't the right age to get hooked on My Little Ponies when they first came out, but I certainly see their appeal.  And any respect that horse-shaped objects get makes me very, very happy indeed.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Rescue Me

For a model horse collector there are few greater thrills than finding a much-desired piece "out in the wild."  By this we mean that the horse is not on a sales list, or from an estate sale of someone's collection, from a retailer, at an antique dealer's shop, or in a high-end auction house.

Model horses found "in the wild" are usually found by accident -- in garage sales, at flea markets, in thrift shops, or even in someone's trash.  Yes, we may frequent local flea markets and garage sales hoping to find a desirable horse-shaped object (HSO), but we don't ever really expect to find one -- it's the thrill of the hunt that drives us on.

Usually, the kind of equines that turn up in such locations are HSOs indeed -- shapes that are vaguely equine, but certainly no show stoppers.

Usually, but not always.  I've heard the stories and I've seen the "finds" -- DW Hagen-Renakers, decorator Breyers and chestnut Beswicks -- all found in the most unlikely of places and going for a song.

This happens often enough that there is even a Facebook group, the Model Horse Liberation Front, dedicated to the stories of model horses found in unlikely places.

I've had my share of "finds" -- some pricier than others.  The pricier ones have always come from flea markets.  There are professional flea marketeers out there who make their living buying desirable items and then flipping them for profit at flea markets.  Sometimes they have great stuff, but they usually know what they have.

I have searched garage sales in my area in vain, and although I've never actually gone through a trash dump in search of a model, I have had a hand in saving a model from the trash (as I explained in my Toys of Yesteryear post).

But my best finds have always been from thrift shops.  They're all small pieces, but they're all clinkies, and being a clinky collector at heart they mean a lot to me.
Rescue #1
My earliest thrift shop find was a Japanese copy of a Beswick small stretching foal with a broken leg.  I was under no illusion that I'd found a Beswick when I bought him -- he is clearly nowhere near the same quality.  But he looked so lonely sitting on his dusty little shelf with no other HSOs to keep him company that my heart went out to him and my hand went to my wallet.  He cost me all of a dollar.
Rescue #2
The next wild-caught HSO to come home with me was also a very unskilled copy of a Beswick horse, this one wildly out of scale with the original.  Maybe the little Kelsboro Ware grazing drafter was not actually meant to copy the large Beswick grazing Shire, but I have my doubts.  At any rate, I took one look at her tiny head and comically oversized feet and I had to have her.  She cost me $5, but she was worth it.
Rescues #3, #4, and #5
I don't get to do a lot of thrift shopping these days, but my last outing brought me a bonanza of three tiny Made in Japan foals.  One is a sweet little palomino running foal stamped "Giftcraft."  The other two look like they might have been copies of H-R miniature foals, a standing white one and a lying chestnut.  Together, the three cost me $7.  Compared to my previous finds they're much more like horses than horse-shaped objects, which doesn't necessarily mean that I would now pass by a homely HSO that seemed to need a home.  It just mean that this particular thrift shop had a nicer selection than most (although it didn't when I left it as I bought all the HSOs they had).

There's just something satisfying about performing a "rescue" and giving a model horse that's close to being tossed away a new home.  People who do restorations must get an even bigger thrill out of their rescues, as their horses usually come to them in pieces and leave (if they do leave) in a state that is often better than their original one.

I haven't joined the Model Horse Liberation Front as I don't have a story about finding something rare or desirable going dirt cheap out on the wild, but like so many other model horse collectors I'm always dreaming of that "someday" when something precious falls into my lap.

Until that day, my little rescues are good enough for me.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Play Misty for Me

Breyer's older horse sculptures, created primarily but not exclusively by their go-to sculptor Chris Hess, have their fans and their detractors.

When I look at the collection tour videos being put out on YouTube these days, I notice that few of the old familiar faces linger on new collectors' shelves, despite the fact that the oldies remain pretty accessible in secondary market sales today.  But aside from a few perennial favourites who never seem to have disappeared from the catalogue, like the Clydesdale family and Lady Phase, the Hess sculptures seem to be under-represented on the shelves, and possibly also in the show ring, these days.

Shouldering the oldies asides are scores of Silvers, Nokotas, Brishens, Othellos, Smarty Joneses, Ruffians, and Lonesome Glorys.

There is however, one old-fashioned Breyer that stands out proudly in almost every collection I've ever seen:  the beloved, old, white-and-gold, shaggy pony, Misty.

Misty has been a must-have model on most collectors' lists since her debut in 1972.  In fact, given that Misty was at the height of her popularity 10 years earlier, when she transfixed a nation of children while giving birth to her foal Stormy in the teeth of a wicked gale, one wonders what took Breyer so long to add her to the herd.

Breyer's Misty was a "must-have" for me

In fact, though, the addition of Misty to the line-up was something of a turning point for Breyer.  Prior to Misty's arrival, the vast majority of Breyer's horses were generic horses, described by their actions (running, fighting, grazing, etc.) and not by name.  The few exceptions were either not particularly accurate portraits (like TV's Fury) or models based on other sculptors' works (like Adios/Yellow Mount and Man O' War).

Misty, and Midnight Sun, which debuted at the same time, were the first original portrait models that Breyer produced.  There were problems with both of them.  Midnight Sun, apparently, was not a "Big Lick" Tennessee Walker and the mold seems to have been based on a generic Tennessee Walker of the time (Walkers were doing the "Big Lick" in the '60s and '70s, but not in the '40s when Midnight Sun had his heyday).  

Misty seems to have been based on a photograph of the actual Misty (taken when she was living with Marguerite Henry), but her painted markings were rejected not once, but twice, by Mrs. Henry herself, for technical inaccuracy.  After two corrections she must have just given up because, as is noted on the Misty's Heaven website, the real Misty had a crooked blaze, not a golden circle around one eye.  

Surprisingly, the culprit here is very likely Marguerite Henry's favourite illustrator, Wesley Dennis.  The headstudy of Misty he did for the cover of Misty of Chincoteague shows a mostly white foal with a golden circle around one eye.  It's unbelievably cute, but it isn't Misty, and Mr. Dennis does not repeat this particular pattern in his any of his black and white illustrations of Misty throughout the rest of the book.

The guilty party?

In fact, the thing that has always struck me as odd about Misty is that she isn't really the hero of her own book.  Most of the book is about Paul and Maureen Beebe's yearning to capture, tame, and race "the Phantom" -- a hitherto un-catchable pony mare living wild on the island of Assateague.  Because she has foaled shortly before Pony Penning Day, they manage to catch Phantom with her foal and immediately plot to buy them both and keep them on Chincoteague.  The remainder of the book deals with their gentling of Phantom and their growing awareness that she's really happier running wild.  SPOILER ALERT:  They let her go in the end, but hang onto Misty, who has never really known the wild life, as a sort of consolation prize.

Still, the book is called Misty of Chincoteague, and Misty is the pony who went to live with the author, who toured schools, libraries, and movie theatres, and brought fame to Chincoteague, Assateague, Pony Penning Days, and the Beebe Ranch.  She may not have really come into her own as a character until Stormy, Misty's Foal was published in 1963, but she was certainly the most famous Chincoteague pony ever to set hoof on the ground for nearly two decades before that (Misty of Chincoteague was published in 1947 when Misty herself was just a year old).

The Smithsonian article, "The True Story of Misty of Chincoteague, the Pony Who Stared Down a Devastating Nor’Easter," captures the appeal of Misty of Chincoteague, the book, well, I think.  The author, Eliza McGraw, notes that the twin themes of freedom and belonging that run through the book comprise "the animal lover's twofold fantasy" -- and I believe she's right.  

I've read more horse stories than I can count, and it's that tension between the wild and the domestic that drives the plot forward in almost every one of them.  Black Beauty is a horse brought up in domesticity, but his wild instincts not only help him rescue several humans from their own blunders, but also help sustain his will to survive.  The Black Stallion is born semi-wild, but learns to be domestic because of the bond he makes with one shipwrecked boy.  The Pie is a natural jumper willing to jump his heart out in an unnatural competition to please his ambitious young owner.  Flicka has the blood of a wild stallion running in her veins, but proves that she can be tamed by patient, gentle handling.  And so it goes ... in story after story after story.  The story of Misty is really no different, except that the wild and domestic are split between two horses -- Phantom representing the wild, and Misty representing the homebody.

Small wonder, then, that Misty seems so at home on collectors' shelves, even today.  We have no model of "the Phantom," but we will always have Misty because the domestic space is the place where Misty really belongs.