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    Auction Finds

    Little Jasper African American pull toy

    My auction buddy Janet and I immediately noticed Little Jasper when we approached the glass case at the auction house, which was holding a special doll sale on this day. We’d never heard of or seen a toy like him before, so we were both intrigued.

    Little Jasper was beaming, his thin pink lips stretched into a broad smile, his body raised slightly above his bright yellow platform on wheels. Surprisingly, for a vintage toy of an African American child, he did not have over-sized red lips. Most of the images I see of black boys and girls in children’s books from back then always painted the lips red as a way to denigrate the kids.

    According to the box, he was an animated pull toy that jumped, turned and danced, and was colorful and cute. He and his little platform were indeed colorful, and with that big grin, he also appeared to be immensely happy.

    Little Jasper pull toy

    Little Jasper up-close. The toy was based on a character in a series of George Pal Puppetoons.

    He had been removed from his original box so the doll collectors and dealers at this high-end auction could see him fully. He was not alone: Four more Jaspers were still in their boxes on a shelf beneath him. According to the auction sheet, none appeared to have been used, and they were dated 1944.

    Since Jasper was new to me, I wanted to find out more about him right there at the auction. I had plenty of time: I knew that the prices for most of these dolls would be more than I could afford, so I was basically waiting to see how much they would sell for. Many were antique and expensive German bisque dolls, along with some Vogue Ginny dolls. A black Ginny doll sold at the auction for $950.

    Little Jasper was based on a character in one of the puppetoons of George Pal, who made them for Paramount Pictures in the 1940s. The George Pal Puppetoons were short stop-action animated films with hand-carved wooden puppets, and Little Jasper appeared in his own series.

    Little Jasper pull toy

    The Little Jasper pull toy and its original box.

    Pal started out as an animation illustrator in his native Hungary. He later found his way into cartoon production after moving to Berlin and then Prague, Czechoslovakia, where he realized that he could use puppets in his films. His first animations were dancing cigarettes.

    He signed on with Paramount to do puppetoons, becoming so successful at them that the studio allowed him to produce some feature-length films. He was one of the producers of “War of the Worlds” and “Time Machine,” both of which won Academy Awards for special effects in 1953 and 1960, respectively.

    The Little Jasper stories centered around the life and antics of a little African American boy living with his mother in the South. He first appeared in a 1942 puppetoon called “Jasper and the Watermelons.” According to the 2007 book “Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture,” Variety magazine gave the short film a positive review, while Ebony magazine dismissed it as “perpetuating the myth of Negro shiftlessness, fear and childishness.”

    The puppetoon was followed by “Jasper and the Haunted House,” which was just as stereotypical.

    Little Jasper pull toy

    Several other unopened boxes of Little Jasper pull toys.

    Pal was “shocked” that people were offended by Little Jasper because he had a love for black people and their culture, according to the George Pal website. Unfortunately, you can’t tell it from watching the film. It seems that Pal had just settled into the common images of black children during this period.

    Later Jasper stories, according to the book, showed him in a different light, as a budding violinist and in the heart of Harlem. Even Ebony praised one of Pal’s later shorts, “John Henry and the Inky Poo (1946),” for its lack of stereotypes.

    The Jasper shorts were said to have been syndicated in the 1950s and 1960s.

    Interestingly, the features of the boy on the pull toy are much softer than those of the Little Jasper in the film shorts. The boy in the film has over-sized lips and enormous eyes. The toy was made by Wood Commodities Corp., which also made other pull toys, including Elsie the cow, the Chickadee family and duck cart. The company also made World War II tanks and other war toys.

    My curiosity satisfied, I had no interest in bidding on Little Jasper. I don’t buy stereotypical items. I wondered, though, how much the lot would bring at auction. In December 1945, a store ad in the Miami News had the toy selling for $1.98. One site on the web, which called the toy “rare,” was recently selling it for $265.

    At auction, the five Little Jaspers sold for a total of $400.

    Little Jasper pull toy

    The back of the Little Jasper pull toy and its original box.

     

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