Toy collector Mel Birnkrant has many rare treasures. But one of the most ephemeral is a Paper construction set called the "Fairy City."
It presents a view of American city life 100 years ago. Mel carefully built it, and then we "unbuilt it" in time lapse and reversed the film, adding in a little stop-motion animation at the end just for fun. (Watch the video on YouTube)
James: Baker's Fairy City seems like a rare and fragile item that would not have survived with very many copies intact. A cat or a young sibling could have trashed it so easily. Do you have the only copies of it?
Mel: Yes, Jim, I believe that's true. I do! It’s not like I have asked my collector friends, as no one has ever seen this here but you. I have the bits and pieces of two and a half copies, maybe three, every one I ever saw, or I dare say, I will ever see.
James: What would have been involved in the manufacturing of all the parts? It seems even more complex than the ambitious pop-up books from 20 years ago.
Mel: Well, in some respects, that’s true. Its complexity borders on a miracle. First of all, the whole thing comes in a mailing envelope that didn’t make it to your video. On the cover is a dismal looking photograph of the whole city set up. Inside that is a full color box. The floor plan is much more immense in person than the video shows, and on the back is a rather complex cardboard stand that folds out to hold the background upright.
Jim: How do you build it?
Mel: Each building is die-cut and glued, with small die-cut pieces that need to be carefully removed. The tabs on the bottom of each building need to be cut off, as they contain additional figures, trees, and vehicles.
Speaking of complex die-cutting, every fold on every element that folds is scored. The characters are curious as tiny details are die cut, while all the rest are meant to be cut out with scissors. Perhaps the most remarkable element of all, is the fact that someone did just that 100 years ago. Could it have been a child? They are impeccably cut with incredible precision and skill. It boggles the mind to think that these were cut out with a pair of scissors, let alone by a child!. I could hardly do as well today with a #11 X-Acto blade, frequently replaced.
James: It would have taken patience, focus, and dexterity for a child to build such a paper city. What challenges did you face in putting it together now, and what does the set tell us about the child of 100 years ago?
Mel: Interesting question; perhaps I should have read it, before I answered the one above. The most difficult aspect of assembling this recently was the fact that the paper has become so brittle. To fold it vigorously is to break it. I set one city up, once, when I first got it, over 50 years ago. Back then, it was no problem, as the paper was still fresh and new, even though it was 50 years old then. But I used some of the buildings in the showcase with Little Nemo, Many of the characters there are standing atop of buildings from the village I assembled so many years ago. Therefore to film your video I had to fold and set up several more. That is how I discovered that the paper has become so fragile.
To reply to the second part of the question, I’d venture to say that there must be few children with the skill, patience, and appetite to undertake a project like this alive today.
James: Did the Baker Company make other sets in this series? Did other companies make similar paper town sets?
Mel: I have never seen or heard of another set quite like this, but I would like to think that such marvelous things were at one time commonplace. There were other toy paper villages, even older than this one. I have a few of them, one was called the Pretty Village. I have one of the only sets of that, in which some of the figures are intact. It too came with a floor plan, and was in a much larger scale than The Fairy City. It is quite pretty, well I guess that’s why it’s called the Pretty Village. I much prefer the nitty gritty reality of industrial USA that is portrayed by the city of your video.
James: The town seems to reflect a magical period in American history, when the city's streets were shared by cars, trolleys, pedestrians, bicycles, early automobiles, and even circus parades. Do you believe in the concept of a Golden Age of American city life, or do you think that we just romanticize the life of previous generations?
Mel: Jim, I like the way you summed that up, and I do believe I understand the answer to your question. You are seeing this as some sort of Magic Fantasy, and so it is to you and me. But I truly believe that when this plaything was created, with the sole exception of the elements of fairy tale fantasy, the Giants and the Lilliputanians, it is an accurate representation of Turn of the Last Century Reality.
In fact, it was an attempt to accurately represent an up-to-date reality. The copy on the mailing package says it far better than I can. It makes special mention of the fact that Wright brother’s plane is included in the set. The flight at Kitty Hawk had taken place just two years before this toy was made. What could be more up to date than that?
|Little Nemo case with a few Fairy City buildings as props|