IN WHICH Pooh appears and we meet a friend named Agnes
On Christmas Eve, 1925, The Evening News of London carried the first story ever published about a tubby little bear named Winnie-the-Pooh.1 The popularity of this piece led the British author, A.A. Milne, to put together a small volume of whimsical tales about Pooh and his friends aptly titled Winnie-the-Pooh.2 The stories Milne told of their adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood were inspired by the stuffed animals of his young son, Christopher Robin, who also appeared in the book as a fictional character. Published in October, 1926 with enchanting illustrations by Punch artist Ernest H. Shepard, the book was an overnight success on both sides of the Atlantic and led to a sequel, The House at Pooh Corner, in 1928.
Two years later, on January 6, 1930, Milne agreed to grant sole and exclusive rights to use and merchandise the Pooh characters in North America (outside of book publishing) to Stephen Slesinger, an astute, twenty-eight year old New York literary agent and pioneer in the licensing business.3 Slesinger envisioned turning these popular figures into a leading children’s brand that would not only provide youngsters the opportunity to surround themselves with Pooh and his friends but foster a feeling of satisfaction and trust among their parents.4 He developed the image we have today of the bear of “very little brain,” being the first to illustrate Pooh in a red shirt.5 He gave Pooh an American voice on phonograph records and radio shows and abandoned the fictional Christopher Robin’s Victorian clothing for a more contemporary, American look. Working through an entity called The Winnie-the-Pooh Association, Inc., he selectively licensed the Pooh characters to other companies to manufacture and sell a variety of quality merchandise based on his design standards.6 Within a year, twenty different companies were marketing two hundred products related to the world of Pooh.7
Among the first items Slesinger wanted to see produced were stuffed animals in order to fulfill the fantasy every child had of playing with his or her favorite character.8 By December, 1930, the Alfred F. Woolnough Company of New York City was advertising a stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh for Christmas.9 However, the Woolnough Pooh was patterned after the classic Teddy bear and bore no similarity to the character depicted in the books.10
Slesinger, who was a brilliant and creative marketer, almost certainly recognized that these toys should resemble Shepard’s illustrations if they were going to be successful. In due course, new designs were developed for the stuffed animals, and manufacturing licenses were issued to King Innovations, Inc. of New York City and Pauline Schindler of Los Angeles.11 These items, which were intended for older children, are believed to have mirrored the designs of those that came later.
Toy stores and department stores were not the only sellers of this merchandise.12 The stuffed animals could also be found in bookstores. In 1940, Young Books on Madison Avenue in New York City published an ad in the magazine House Beautiful offering “storybook’s most beloved characters” to “live in your nursery outside Make Believe Land.”13 The 14” tall Pooh, wearing his traditional red shirt, was priced at $5.00. His best friend, Piglet, 11” tall and dressed in a colorful, multi-striped jumper, sold for $2.00.14 This was probably an example of the Pooh toys then being manufactured by King Innovations.
During World War II, a New Yorker named Mary Alice Clark assumed the pleasant responsibility of making the occupants of the Hundred Acre Wood under a license from Stephen Slesinger, Inc. Many materials were in short supply at the time, which likely impacted the production of these toys.15 At some point while Mary Alice Clark held the license, she hired a middle-aged woman named Agnes Brush to assist her.
Born Agnes Thompson on Staten Island on February 23, 1904, Mrs. Brush grew up in upstate New York.16 In 1924, she married Granville Brush, a commercial draftsman and plastering contractor who made ornamental accents for the interiors and exteriors of buildings. Mrs. Brush originally worked as a milliner in New York City before she joined Mary Alice Clark in the production of stuffed animals.17
In approximately 1948, Mrs. Brush assumed the Pooh license and began to make Pooh and his friends at her home at 149-07 12th Avenue in Whitestone, Queens.18 Mrs. Brush enlisted seven to eight other women in the neighborhood, skilled seamstresses all, to help in what was literally a small cottage-industry.19 Working from their own homes, the women would sew the animals using patterns that Mrs. Brush supplied, add Kapok stuffing, a little love, and then the final hand stitching. As the creation of an individual craftswoman, each one was unique.
Lisa Larsen/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
In February, 1956, a Life Magazine photographer captured a series of images of Mrs. Brush’s sewing circle at the back of the Brush home for possible inclusion in a forthcoming spread commemorating the life and legacy of A.A. Milne, who had died on January 31.20 The photo shoot was staged as the women never actually worked together.21 Moreover, though the room was set up to look like a production area, it was not heated and was seldom even used for that purpose by Mrs. Brush.22 This photo, with Mrs. Brush standing to the right of her friends and holding a Heffalump in her hands, never appeared in the article published in the February 27 issue and was hidden away in the Life photo archives for over half a century.22
Mrs. Brush would make sure that each figure met her exacting quality standards before she added the finishing touches.24 She would personally sew on the eyes of the characters—beaded eyes for Pooh, Piglet, and Kanga; simple sewn eyes for Eeyore, Roo, and the Heffalump.25 Some of the features, including Owl’s eyes and feathers, Rabbit’s nose and eyes, and Tigger’s eyes and stripes, were painted by hand.
Lisa Larsen/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
A few of the characters received a sartorial flourish. Pooh, of course, could never go out in public without his classic red shirt. Piglet was given a colorful, knotted scarf. The scarf color varied depending on the color of his striped jumper, which was changed periodically. Rabbit and the Heffalump wore a double wound piece of red yarn tied in a bow around their necks.
Mrs. Brush would then take a red pen and hand write the name of the character on a white, printed, string tag which she attached to the animal before sending it off. The Pooh tag, for example, read:
“WINNIE THE POOH”
with permission of
Stephen Slesinger, Inc.
Following Stephen Slesinger’s untimely death in 1953, his widow Shirley assumed control of his enterprises.26 With a renewed vision and her considerable charm, she launched a retail campaign that expanded the distribution of Pooh products nationwide.27 The Agnes Brush stuffed animals had been previously carried by select department stores, book stores, and toy stores. Shirley Slesinger now persuaded F.A.O. Schwarz, the country’s premier toy store, and high end department stores like Nieman Marcus, Bergdorf’s, Saks, Marshall Field’s, and Bullocks Wilshire to add Pooh Corners where the Agnes Brush dolls and other Pooh merchandise could be prominently displayed.28 Pooh parties and related events for children were held at the stores as a form of destination marketing, providing even greater visibility for the items. As a consequence, the demand for the stuffed animals soared like the balloon Christopher Robin gave to Pooh for his honey bee adventure.
The retail prices of these toys reflected their hand crafting. In 1960, Poohs were being sold at F.A.O. Schwarz for $7.00 apiece, which today would be the equivalent of about $50.00.29 Piglets were $4.00 while Tigger, Eeyore, and the Heffalump were $6.00 each. Rabbit and Owl would each leave the store for $5.50. Kanga and Roo were the costliest of the bunch at $8.95.
Children loved them, and Mrs. Brush experienced difficulties meeting the increased demand. Although the women worked year round to keep up, there were invariably shortages especially around the Christmas holidays.30 F.A.O. Schwarz customarily received whatever it ordered, but buyers of other stores often found they could not get the stock they needed.31 This led them to increase their orders after the holidays to insure a supply, which guaranteed that Mrs. Brush would have a steady stream of business into the New Year.32 Although this might seem to have been part of a clever business strategy, it was not. According to her daughter Joyce, Mrs. Brush was without artifice in her business dealings.33 Her small, cottage business was simply not equipped to satisfy the greater demand Shirley Slesinger’s marketing efforts created.
In 1961, after a period of being wooed by the irrepressible Walt Disney, Shirley Slesinger licensed certain commercial rights to the Pooh brand to the Walt Disney Company in return for royalty payments to Stephen Slesinger, Inc.34 As part of the agreement, Disney received the rights to make toys of the characters. At about the same time, Mrs. Brush was diagnosed with cancer and relinquished the business to focus on her treatment and eventual recovery.35 While stores like F.A.O. Schwarz continued to sell their remaining stock over the next year or so, sadly, the era of the Agnes Brush hand-made stuffed Pooh animals came to a close.36
Mrs. Brush passed away on June 12, 1982, but her memory lives on in each of the many characters she so beautifully brought to life.
1. Biography of A.A. Milne at Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A.A._Milne (accessed December 26, 2010). Technically, the character that would become Winnie-the-Pooh made an earlier appearance in a poem that Milne published in the February 13, 1924 issue of Punch magazine and then later that year in a collection of his verses published under the title When We Were Very Young (London: Methuen, 1924). Ibid. However, at that point the bear was named Edward. Ibid.↩
2. Milne, A.A., Winnie-the-Pooh (London: Methuen, 1926). The book was first published in England on October 14, 1926 and was released later that month in the United States by E.P. Dutton.↩
3. “About Stephen Slesinger,” at Slesingersink.com, http://slesingersink.com/page.php?pageid=1 (accessed October 4, 2010).↩
4. Personal communication with Patricia Slesinger (January 6, 2011).↩
5. “About Stephen Slesinger,” at Slesingersink.com, http://slesingersink.com/page.php?pageid=1 (accessed October 4, 2010).↩
6. McKelway, St. Claire, “The Literary Character in Business and Commerce,” The New Yorker, p. 90 (October 26, 1935).↩
7. Ibid. at p. 96. See also “The Merchant of Child,” Fortune, at p. 71 (November 1931).↩
8. “The first toy Winnie-the-Pooh for sale was a Woolnough,” at Stephenslesinger.com, http://www.stephenslesinger.com/index.php?id=55 (accessed September 8, 2010).↩
9. F.W. Woolnough ad for Winnie-the-Pooh, Child Life, p. 700 (December 1930). In addition to the stuffed animals that Woolnough made for older children, there were softer, plush toys for infants. McKelway at pp. 94-95; Personal communication with Patricia Slesinger (January 6, 2011).↩
10. See image of a Woolnough Pooh from around 1930, Miller’s Antiques and Collectibles website:
http://www.millersantiquesguide.com/items/30410/an-american-woolnough-pooh-bear-with-foot-stamp-c1930-14in/ (accessed September 8, 2010). Ironically, the Woolnough Pooh looked more like Christopher Robin’s actual Teddy bear, which had been purchased at Harrods in London, than the drawings of E.H. Shepard, who had reportedly used his own son’s stuffed bear “Growler” as his model. See Biography of E.H. Shepard at Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._H._Shepard (accessed December 26, 2010).
The original stuffed Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, and Kanga were donated to the New York Public Library by John Dyson, the former owner of E.P. Dutton, the American publisher of Milne’s books, following the sale of the company in 1985. Boylan, Jennifer Finney, “The Library at Pooh Corner, The New York Times (December 21, 2010), http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/22/opinion/22boylan.php?src=twrhp; Whyte, Jo, “Winnie the Pooh History,” at Ezine @rticles.com, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A.A._Milne (accessed December 26, 2010). A photo of these historical inspirations for one of the treasures of children’s literature can be found at Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A.A._Milne.↩
11. “The first toy Winnie-the-Pooh for sale was a Woolnough,” at Stephenslesinger.com, http://www.stephenslesinger.com/index.php?id=55 (accessed September 8, 2010); Personal communication with Patricia Slesinger (October 4, 2010). At the time, it was felt that two licensees were needed, one on each coast, given the expense of shipping goods across the country. King Innovations was distributing Poohs and Piglets as early as 1932.↩
12. McKelway at p. 94.↩
13. Young Books advertisement, House Beautiful (1940).↩
15. Personal communication with Patricia Slesinger (October 4, 2010).↩
16. Personal communication with Joyce Brush Riemer (December 20, 2010). Agnes Brush spent her teenage years in East Meredith, New York. Personal communication with Joyce Riemer (December 28, 2010).↩
17. Personal communication with Joyce Brush Riemer (December 20, 2010).↩
20. “The World of Pooh Lives On,” Life Magazine, pp. 115-120 at p. 117 (February 27, 1956). http://books.google.com/books?id=JlcEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA115&dq=Milne&hl=en&ei=BVWITLz8NZLCsAOwrqGnCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Milne&f=false. The Life photographer who shot the photos of Agnes Brush and her colleagues was Lisa Larsen (1925-1959). A biography of this talented photojournalist can be found at http://www.photocollect.com/bio.php?id=160. It was Ms. Larsen who took the iconic Life photographs of Senator John F. Kennedy and his bride, Jacqueline, at their wedding reception in September, 1953.↩
21. Personal communication with Joyce Brush Riemer (December 20, 2010).↩
23. “The World of Pooh Lives On,” Life Magazine, pp. 115-120 at p. 117 (February 27, 1956). http://books.google.com/books?id=JlcEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA115&dq=Milne&hl=en&ei=BVWITLz8NZLCsAOwrqGnCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Milne&f=false. The images appearing here are published under license from Getty Images.↩
25. Personal communication with Joyce Brush Riemer (December 28, 2010). At one point, Eeyore was given button eyes, but this evidently preceded Agnes Brush’s production of the character. Joyce Riemer recalls that all of her mother’s Eeyores has sewn eyes. Ibid.↩
26. “The Slesingers,” at Stephenslesinger.com, http://www.stephenslesinger.com/index.php?id=55 (accessed September 8, 2010).↩
27. Personal communication with Patricia Slesinger (January 6, 2011).↩
28. Personal communication with Patricia Slesinger (October 4, 2010).↩
29. “Christmas 1960 Catalog,” F.A.O. Schwarz, p. 7 (1960).↩
30. Personal communication with Patricia Slesinger (October 4, 2010); Personal communication with Joyce Brush Riemer (December 28, 2010).↩
31. Personal communication with Patricia Slesinger (October 4, 2010).↩
33. Personal communication with Joyce Brush Riemer (December 20, 2010).↩
34. Personal communication with Patricia Slesinger (January 6, 2011).↩
35. Personal communication with Joyce Brush Riemer (December 20, 2010).↩
36. F.A.O. Schwarz carried the entire Pooh line in its Christmas 1961 and 1962 catalogs. “Christmas 1962 Catalog,” F.A.O. Schwarz, p. 21 (1962); “Christmas 1961 Catalog,” F.A.O. Schwarz, p. 7 (1961).↩