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Norwalk Plus magazine : Norwalk Plus Winter 2007 Published: Nov 30, 2007 - 8:28:37 AM

Raggedy Ann - a Norwalk success story

By Chandra Niles Folsom

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“Success in life will never spoil the one who wins success by toil.” -Raggedy Ann

She is not programmed by a microchip or run by batteries. She does not walk unassisted or speak aloud. But, she is the doll who needs no introduction — Raggedy Ann.

While there have been countless myths as to her exact bloodline, Raggedy Ann was rumored to have been born smiling and fully-clothed on the banks of the Silvermine River in June 1915. Her prototype, a generic handmade cloth doll was created nearly a century earlier in Arcola, Illinois, by the great grandmother of Johnny Gruelle, who grew up to become an illustrator, author and creator of the trademarked Raggedy Ann doll.

Born & Bred in Norwalk

One of the original five families to settle in Silvermine, Johnny, his wife Myrtle and their two kids Marcella and Worth moved into a house dubbed Twee Deedle Lodge in the early 1900s. It was there that various incarnations of the Raggedy Ann character were concocted — appearing in the children’s tales and cartoon strips created by Johnny that paid tribute to the stability, nurturance and unconditional love of his great grandma.

It was in May 1914 that an illustration named Rags turned up in an installment of Gruelle’s cartoon strip, Mr. Deedle. However, soon afterward, tragedy struck the Gruelle family when a tainted vaccination was given to Marcella by the school nurse. She spent months in bed gravely ill while Johnny read her the true-life adventures of Raggedy Ann in hopes they would heal her. Sadly, Marcella died, but Raggedy Ann lived on.

September 7, 1915 was the day the doll received her official United States design patent. A trademark followed and three years later — just in time for Christmas, 24-dozen Raggedy Ann dolls, along with a children’s book titled Raggedy Ann Stories, were distributed to department stores nationwide. In the stories, dolls and other toys came to life whenever humans were not around to observe them. These faith-based tales, along with the myth that Raggedy Ann possessed a candy heart, catapulted the doll to superstardom and into the toy chests of most American kids.

Then, in 1920, Raggedy Ann got a little brother named Andy. The advertisement at Read’s department store announced his birth: “Raggedy Ann has brought with her this year her brother Raggedy Andy, who is homelier than Ann, but is a good boy.”

By the mid 1920s, The Gruelle family — including an additional son named Richard, moved to a larger home in Norwalk. The earliest dolls were manufactured at the Beers-Keeler-Bowman Company, in Norwalk.

This American success story continued through two World Wars and the Great Depression. The dolls were then produced exclusively by the P.F. Volland Company in Michigan — which also published the book series. Volland discontinued the dolls in 1934 and gave Gruelle his trademark and copyright back. But it wasn’t long before a former Volland salesman by the name of Howard Cox convinced Gruelle to incorporate with him and look for a new manufacturer.

It was during the spring of 1935 that the Exposition Doll & Toy Manufacturing Company negotiated a deal that would mass-produce the Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. The cotton was high until the New York Toy Fair of 1935 turned up a Raggedy Ann doll bearing the trademark of another company –Molly-E — run by a Russian immigrant named Molye Goldman. Raggedy Andy and Beloved Belindy (also a Gruelle creation) then began popping up in stores.

Raggedy Ann Goes to Court

Gruelle vs. Goldman hit the courtroom the following autumn. The defendant raised her right hand and swore on the witness stand that she and Gruelle had formed a preliminary partnership to manufacture the dolls. Although Gruelle won the case in 1937, the experience took a deadly toll on him and he died shortly after the New Year of massive heart failure.

The newspaper headlines read that Johnny had died of a broken heart. His wife Myrtle decided to honor her late husband’s memory by negotiating with a well-known doll designer to begin producing her own whimsical rendition of the Raggedy Ann and Andy Dolls. She also requested and received the plates and rights to Johnny’s stories. This infuriated Goldman, who petitioned all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the earlier decision. The court denied her petition.

Before her death in 1968, Myrtle passed the company down to her two sons who took over all Raggedy Ann-related merchandise. Worth picked up where his dad left off, drawing new illustrations of Raggedy Ann and friends.

Raggedy Ann Made in China

Today, Hasbro owns the trademark to Raggedy Ann and (say it ain’t so) the dolls are made in China by Applause LLC, a division of Russ Berrie & Co., Inc. Raggedy Ann now joins the ranks of millions of other American toys, mass-produced in a far away land.

Applause is currently producing Raggedy Anns and Andys ranging in price from a pocket size $5.99 to $60 for a 48-inch sized doll.

But all is not lost for traditionalists — Raggedy Ann still lives on at the Norwalk Museum, in a permanent display of Anns, Andys, early illustrations and merchandise from various manufacturers throughout the years. The Silvermine Tavern Gift Shop also sells Raggedy Ann merchandise.

In 2002, the Museum assisted Raggedy Ann in becoming the newest member of the National Toy Hall of Fame by requesting visitors sign a petition for her to be included in their collection of famous toys. The Museum collected more than 600 signatures. “Raggedy Ann enjoys timeless popularity because, made from cloth, she’s always warm, cuddly and safe,” says Susan Gunn Bromley, curator of the Norwalk Museum, who holds bi-yearly Raggedy Ann tea parties where the public is always invited. “Her face conveys that she’s right there with you, willing to listen — and you can tell that face anything!”

Last April, the Museum approved a donation offered by Marilyn Diamondstone that included nine boxed Raggedy Ann and Andy Dolls, including Limited Edition 80th and 85th Anniversary Dolls; magnetic Raggedy Ann and Andy paper dolls with ten outfits; a small tea set; a small red sweatshirt printed with Raggedy Ann and Andy; a Raggedy Ann plastic radio, plastic stapler and planters; two books: The Original Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy, Derrydale Books, New York, 1991 and Raggedy Ann Raggedy Andy and Rags Adapted from the Stories of Johnny Gruelle, Illustrated by Jan Palmer, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, New York, 2002.

Collector’s Items

Raggedy Ann has been in commercial production since 1915 — and Andy since 1920 — qualifying them as an antique doll, a vintage doll, and a modern doll. The originals are not cheap — a set of Volland Raggedy Ann and Andys (circa 1920s) can set a collector back $3,000. Raggedy Ann still holds a special place in people’s hearts and they travel from miles around to visit the doll’s birthplace in Connecticut. “I actually stumbled upon Raggedy Ann at the Norwalk Museum when my boyfriend and I were walking around town,” says Nancy Rhoda, of Buffalo, New York, who has been collecting dolls since the age of four when her grandmother made her one by hand.

“My Mom gave me her own Raggedy Ann doll that she received at about the age of five,” she adds. “I was later given a Raggedy Andy and bought two at a parent/teacher store in the third grade. I read the books when I was little and then watched the cartoons when they came out — so Raggedy Ann is kind of a tradition passed down.”

Would she consider buying the new Raggedy Ann China dolls? “It’s so funny, because Raggedy Ann is red, white and blue,” says Rhoda. “I had other dolls and an array of stuffed animals when I was a kid, but Raggedy Ann was always — and is still my favorite. I’m glad I have the originals. But Raggedy Ann is an American doll and is still part of American history.” ■

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