Tryon Toy Makers: Historic toys and wood carving in Tryon North Carolina

Hand-painted toys made in Tryon between 1915 and 1949 are unequaled in charm and quality. No two are exactly alike. The delicacy of the brushwork distinguish these wood objects such as spinning tops, miniature dolls, dollhouse furniture, and sets of animals and human figures. Motifs include Little Red Riding Hood, Noah's Ark and The Old Woman in the Shoe. The most famous set of Tryon toys is the Mountain Home group, consisting of figures of a traditional Southern Highlands mountaineer and his family, with their farm animals, and a log cabin box to put the toys in – its roof the hinged lid of the box. This popular Tryon Toy Makers set was extolled by author James S. Tippett in his landmark 1931 book Toys and Toy Makers, with charming illustrations by artist Elizabeth Enright, published in New York by Harper & Brothers.

The earliest painted toys from the period 1915 through 1922 are marked "Tryon Toy-Makers and Weavers" because during that earliest period the enterprise also had looms that wove local cotton. After 1922 the toys are marked "Tryon Toy-Makers & Wood-Carvers." Tryon painted toys after 1949 are simpler in design and not so delicately painted; they are usually marked with a paper label that says Tryon Toy House. Christmas ornaments date to this period subsequent to 1949. When the business was sold to Chuck & Nancy Hearon in the late 1970s, their name for the business was Tryon Toymakers; their enterprise continued until the early 1990s. The Hearon period pieces are finely crafted and beautifully painted; their most renowned design is a delightful rabbit somersaulting on parallel bars.

Hand painted Goldilocks and the three bears set with furniture
Goldilocks and the Three Bears set complete with furniture

The Goldilocks set is iconic, and proved to be one of the most popular produced by the Toy Makers between 1915 and 1949. Like most of the Tryon toy sets, bases for animals and human figures are flat rectangular wood pieces, with flat cut-outs of the figures glued in grooves, then painted. During this period, the motifs for most Tryon toys were derived from European folk tales. This particular tale was first popularized by British author Robert Southey in 1837. Various visual interpretations historically include famed illustrations of this tale by English artist Arthur Rackham. The designs of the Tryon Goldilocks figures are not based on any known specific precedent, but it is certain that Vance and Yale turned to popular images of their era for inspiration. For example one of their test designs owned by cultural historian Michael McCue, an elaborate painted figure of rabbits, is clearly based on a famous Beatrix Potter image in The Tale of Peter Rabbit first published in 1902 in England.

Back side of painted three bears and Goldilocks painted toys
Back sides of figures in the Goldilocks set by Tryon Toy Makers

A delightful design aspect of classic Tryon toys, from the first half of the twentieth century, is how the backs of the figures differ from the fronts. Never a mirror image, the back sides often deploy an interesting trick or twist. In this Goldilocks set, for example, Mama Bear holds a sock she's knitting in her right hand (seen from the back) while the front side shows her holding a draw-purse in left hand. This back view of the little chair also highlights the subtle form and skill of manufacture of such a simple tiny object.

During the late 19th century the Goldilocks story evolved and codified in popular consciousness, so that Americans instantly recognized the iconography of this set of toys. Like children's picture books, the colorful Tryon toys could be used for educational purposes as well as simply for recreational play. The quality of these toys was so outstanding that many were kept as display treasures, and never actually used by children. They also were expensive. The finest, best-preserved public collection of vintage Tryon toys extant belongs to the North Carolina Museum of History.