Tryon Toy-Makers and Wood-Carvers
Eleanor Park Vance and Charlotte Louise Yale, two young women who met at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, established the Biltmore Estate Industries in Asheville, North Carolina in 1901. This enterprise was funded by George and Edith Vanderbilt, who lived in the massive Biltmore House, which was designed by celebrated architect Richard Morris Hunt.
The Vanderbilts sponsored a trip to Scotland for the women to experience craft instruction, especially weaving. 1 The craft education program at Biltmore focused on wood-carving and wool weaving as cottage industries. Vance, who was formally trained in wood-carving and design at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, was well qualified to take on this aspect of craft. Yale concentrated on weaving. As they helped bring about a revival of traditional mountain handicrafts, the women implemented social and economic change through the marketing of crafts.
In 1915, Vance and Yale moved 40 miles southeast to Tryon, a small town populated with a surprising number of artists, writers, and intellectuals. Arts and crafts held a significant position in Tryon as early as 1890. In 1910, Ralph Erskine established a craft enterprise for handmade chairs and sophisticated antique furniture reproduction. About the same time, Mary Large came to Tryon from a Chicago settlement house that emphasized traditional industries such as weaving, basket making, and ceramics. 2 Women were profoundly influential in the historic and liberal arts climate of Tryon. The small town attracted social reformers who were largely from the North, "wintering" in Tryon. Into this cosmopolitan climate, Vance and Yale were not only welcomed, but were applauded for their progressive ideas in design.
Vance and Yale purchased a house called Hillcote where local boys produced wooden toys newly designed by the pair. Originally, and for only a short time, the enterprise was known as the Tryon Toy-Makers and Weavers. Yale carried over the aspect of weaving, which had been a successful craft of Biltmore Estate Industries, but switched from wool to cotton in Tryon, due to local availability. These hand-woven cotton products gained popularity with Fred Seely, manager of the luxurious Grove Park Inn, eventual owner of Biltmore Industries, and loyal friend of Vance and Yale. Seely purchased woven products from the Tryon enterprise to furnish the Grove Park Inn. He used his keen business sense and financial savvy to market the goods all over the country. 3
In 1921, Vance and Yale abandoned the weaving operation to concentrate on wood working. They adopted the familiar name of Tryon Toy-Makers and Wood-Carvers. The operation continued to experience great success through the late 1930s, largely due to the number of influential northerners with ties to Tryon. Tryon toys include spinning tops, napkin rings, rabbits, clowns, Red Riding Hoods, bookends, doll furniture, Little Bo Peep, farm animals, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Noah's Ark.
The growing success of the business soon demanded a larger workshop and a better located retail store. A bungalow next to Hillcote was purchased to expand toy production. In 1925 the unique Toy House was constructed. Designed by Tryon architect J. Foster Searles, the image of Toy House evoked old Europe. In The Tryon Toy-Makers and Wood-Carvers: A History 1915-1940, author Michael McCue summarizes the aesthetic of the architecture, "It consciously rejects the primitivism of the Southern Highlands log cabin motif in favor of the romance of a European cottage," he wrote. 4 This tendency toward a more "sophisticated" design is evident not only in much of Tryon's architecture, but in the style of many Tryon Toy-Makers products. Most wood-carving and toy-making under Eleanor Vance and Charlotte Yale did not reflect a traditional Appalachian aesthetic; instead, the work reflected their interest in European design, including English and Gothic themes. This departure from the predominant Appalachian style is probably why Tryon crafts received no more than a nod in Allen Eaton's important reference, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands, published in 1937.
Tryon Toy-Makers and Wood-Carvers became a member of the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild in 1932. Their association with a prestigious, regionally known organization increased the popularity of the toy-makers. Another factor contributing the widespread success of Vance and Yale's business was the fact that three U. S. First Ladies visited Tryon at different times and became enamored with the quaint toys. First Ladies Grace Coolidge and Lou Hoover both made trips to Tryon. It is not surprising that Eleanor Roosevelt also visited the Toy House in Tryon at least twice, as she was known for her lifelong support and appreciation of handicrafts and openly endorsed crafts production as a means of economic relief during the Great Depression. Roosevelt was so impressed with the work of Vance and Yale that she extended an invitation to them, which they accepted in 1935, to visit the White House. 5
To encourage workers to press on during the difficult times of the Great Depression, Vance and Yale built yet another European-inspired structure, the Chalet, located behind the Toy House in 1932. It was their hope that workers would remain loyal to the production of toys, while achieving financial stability for themselves. In 1936, Charlotte Yale and Eleanor Vance faced the economic realities of the day and their own advancing ages. They sold the business to Farmer's Federation, a non-profit organization based in Asheville. Vance and Yale began another teaching venture for children, Tryon Craft School, where they continued to make hand crafted products of different designs, such as puppets. Farmer's Federation was not successful and the women took back the operation after 1939. Tryon Toy-Makers and Wood-Carvers struggled on a small scale until they sold the Toy House and their business in 1949. The business was sold again in the 1970s to a couple ran it on a small scale in other locations until it finally closed in the early 1990s.
Anna Shearouse, 2009
Images courtesy Michael McCue
1. Bruce Johnson, A Brief History of Biltmore Industries (Asheville: Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, 2005), 2.
2. Michael J. McCue, The Tryon Toy-Makers and Wood-Carvers, A History 1915-1940 (Columbus, NC: Condar Press, 2004), 3.
3. McCue, The Tryon Toy-Makers, 11.
4. McCue, The Tryon Toy-Makers, 17.
5. McCue, The Tryon Toy-Makers, 26.