A Bit of a Whimsie by Carole Murdock

Wade and Whimsies are synonymous to Wade collectors.  No matter what Wade collectors decide to specialize in, the odds are that there are a few Whimsies tucked among their collections.  And for a good reason!  These little figures are hard to resist, the colors and subjects are appealing, and they are definitely “whimsical.”  According to sources at Wade, there were over 2,000,000 Whimsies in stock at the height of production.

Wade originally produced bobbins and thread guides for the cotton industry and later insulators for the government and decorative tiles, etc.  According to Iris Wade Carryer, Sir George Wade’s daughter, government contracts for the insulators were unexpectedly canceled, leaving new and specialized equipment lying idle.  Unemployment for loyal employees, mostly women, loomed.  Management of the Wade potteries in England and Ireland met to discuss the crisis. 

Although women had little input into management in the early fifties, Sir George asked his daughter Iris for a contribution to solve the problem.  During the meeting, she had been gazing at some insulator samples lined along a mantle in the boardroom.  They were complicated porcelains for switches, precision-made in steel dies.  Thinking of her childhood Noah’s Ark animals, she suggested, “If Wade can press small insulators, why can’t we press small animals instead?”  Although initially the idea was ridiculed, her brother Anthony and husband Straker defended her.  In fact, Anthony exclaimed excitedly, “We could make them by the gross!  It’s a marvelous bit of whimsey!”  Thus the famous Whimsies came to be.

In order to keep both the George Wade and Son Ltd in the Burslem and Wade Ireland Ltd in Portadown busy, the manufacture of the Whimsies was divided between the two potteries.  The odd numbered sets were made in England, and the even numbered sets in Ireland.  There were nine boxed sets of 5 and one boxed set of 4.  The first Whimsie set was shown at the British Industries Fair in 1954, and production of sets continued until1961.

To use remaining unsold Whimsies, Sir George directed his pottery managers to take the Whimsies and “stick um on something.”  This led to attaching assorted Whimsies to pin trays, candle holders, and other dishes.  Almost all the Whimsies were used in this manner

From 1971-1984, Wade sold its second edition of sixty animals.  Each set was boxed in individual boxes of a specific color.  For example, set one was dark blue.  Some of the sets were also packaged within a larger package which held all five boxes in the set.  Whimtrays were again made but used only the trout, duck, and fawn.  With the end of this series came the WhimsieLand Series of twenty-five figures from 1984-1988, all packaged in individual boxes and released in sets of five.  Whimsies were commissioned by other companies like Tom Smith Crackers and Red Rose Tea.  The colors and styles of Whimsies continue today with no sign of stopping.

Whimsies traditionally have been made from loose porcelain clay which was pressed into a metal tool or die—the same process used in making insulators.  The mold is fitted to the machine, loose clay is pressed into the bottom section of the mold and an arm presses the top section of the mold down into the clay.  With a pedal operated by foot, the base is raised and the Whimsie pops up.  This base is striated to facilitate the separation of the clay figure from the metal base.  Some people called the Whimsies “match strikers” because of the pattern of raised stripes on the bottom of the animals.  

Most of the workers on the lines making the Whimsies were women when I first saw them in the mid 80’s.  Dressed in their colorful dresses, they were a charming sight among the stark grey walls of the pottery rooms.  After the Whimsies popped up on their base after being pressed, the ladies fettled (cut off) the rough lines from the die and put the animals on large trays which were set aside to dry before being hand painted, sprayed with a clear glaze and sent off to the ovens to be fired.  Even these metal dies wear out eventually so the pieces are not as crisp toward the end of production.  New dies are sometimes made for the same figure and this leads to slight variations in size and/or details of the piece.

The metal tools are quite costly and each new figure requires a new tool.  Thus, several thousand pieces have to be made with each tool for it to be cost effective.  Today, with costs of supplies and labor ever-increasing, Wade has started making their Whimsies by another method.  Clay molds are made, and liquid clay is pored into them.  The molds are totally filled with the clay to produce the solid figures we are used to but because the clay molds are less expensive and can be replaced more easily as they wear out, fewer pieces of each model need to be made.  The blue bird from the spring UK Fair and the current membership Whimsies are examples of this new process.

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