And you thought the Pez Factory Tour was fun. Before opening, the Pez people came to the Barker Character, Comic and Cartoon Museum for advice. No wonder. It’s incomparable. Take the wonderful Laurel and Hardy Museum in Harlem, GA and multiply it a thousand fold and you begin to get a sense of the vastness of the Barkers’ collection. It’s all located in a tiny, 3 room museum in tiny Cheshire, CT.
Herb Barker has a special affinity for Popeye, since they were born just 5 days apart in 1929. Barker thinks of the cartoon character as his brother. His collection of all things Popeye is eye popping. Here’s Popeye Heavy Hitty, from 1932 and worth over $14,000, which apparently still works.
Remember that spinach made Popeye strong enough to ding that bell? Curator Judy First is concerned that one of the cans of spinach in the collection will explode some day!
Of course, I have a special fondness for Olive Oyl. My brother nicknamed me after her, not such a compliment. Tall and skinny. Ah, those were the days. Did you know that Popeye is actually Olive Oyl’s second boyfriend? Her first was Ham Gravy.
I also got to meet Jeep, Popeye’s very powerful pet. He could bring characters back from the dead. He was considered such good luck that the Army named a vehicle after him.
Barker and his wife began collecting, and still collect today, even as they live in Florida, nowhere near their Cheshire museum. Showing me a recent collection bought online via Hake’s, Judy told me that Barker doesn’t play with his toys after he buys them. She does though when she can, especially while dusting!
The Barkers collected toys–wind up, tin, stuffed, friction that spark, and yes, Pez dispensers. They also collected cereal boxes, games, viewmasters, and lunchboxes.
In 1950, the first steel lunchbox featuring a character decal was introduced. Hopalong Cassidy. Wildly popular over the plain red or blue steel can, the new lunchbox concept was a smash. By 1951, a new innovation of stamping a lithographed image over the whole surface the steel lunchbox was introduced. Every year, we kids needed a new lunchbox with the latest hot character. That US marketing ingenuity. Well, until 1987, when steel boxes were outlawed. A kid could crack another kid’s noggin with one, after all!
I loved seeing the Frito-Lay lunchbox strung up overhead, just like the one on top of my refrigerator. Not only did I carry one as a child, but my current, vintage iteration came from my tenure at the company.
What did I love? So much. Here are a few extra special items.
The 1931 Krazy Kat band.
The Harold Lloyd squeeze toy from the 1950s; squeeze the tongs in the back to open his mouth, move his eyes up and down, and ding the bell.
Other squeeze toys would send sparks from the figure’s eyes–kinda spooky.
Superman wrestling with the Soviet Army Tank. Really.
Topo Gigio, a favorite from the Ed Sullivan Show. Eight men operated the mouse, including one that focused on his fingers. Beyond cute.
Bead o Rama, a game where beads are placed in holes over an image. Like a coloring book, but with beads.
The original Gumby and Pokey clay figures and the tool wielded by Art Clokey to fashion them. Clokey called them claymation. I wonder what he would make of claymation today. Every wonder about Gumby’s lopsided head? It was a cartoon version of his father’s side-parted hair style.
The 1873 cast iron Ramp Walker elephants, the oldest toys in the museum, produced by Ives Company of Bridgeport, CT. Put them on a ramp, and they will walk down it. I would really like to see that.
Elsie, the robot cow, the spokescow for Borden Dairy. If every robot were this adorable, we’d live in a very different world. People lined up to meet Elsie, the real Elsie cow, at her debut at the 1939 Chicago World’s Fair. Elsie was so popular that when Borden’s introduced a glue, they wanted to use her brand name. But then they considered that people would think the glue was made of/from Elsie! Yikes! So they named it after Elmer, her husband. Over time, Elmer and Elsie had kids, too.
The Mickey Mouse Milk of Magnesia toothpaste. Really! It was recalled because the container was lined with lead. Oh well. This item is so rare that Disney contacted the museum attempting to buy it. No luck. Go to Cheshire to see it.
The Yellow Kid, one of the oldest comic strips in its current modern form. Not only was heused in the comics, but also in advertising, with the words drawn on the character’s body. Dating back to the 1890s, this strip was targeted to “people living in the ghetto.” The character wears a yellow hand-me-down and is bald because he had lice!
The Gidget Fortune Telling Game. I certainly would like Gidget to tell my fortune!
I can tell good fortune will favor you with good humor if you visit this wonderful, jam-packed, story-filled museum.