Noah's arks were not only extremely popular in the mid to late 19th century as toys for children, but were also an important source of income for many families who engaged in this cottage industry. Family members were all often involved in the carving, design and, painting of the arks. Children would paint the under coat of gesso and the detailed painting would be left up to the parents. Carving would be the father's job. In the Nuremberg and Erzgebirge areas of Germany where toys were a huge business, arks were considered expensive, profitable and highly desirable. The industry grew until the end of World War I, when knock-off copies were mass produced and the individual care and attention given by individual carvers and painters was lost to machine made products.
Realizing the huge demand for this wonderful toy, wholesalers designed more and more styles to choose from and often encouraged easier and faster ways to produce them. Originally everything was hand done and individualized. The sides may have been stenciled but the frieze under the roof cornice would be hand painted and very original in design. The bird with the olive branch would always be included, usually on the slide side. The earlier, best arks would be deep hulled with separately carved animals, with a myriad of wonderfully bright and whimsically colored surfaces. Later in the interest of speed and ease, the arks became flat-bottomed and often had printed paper friezes and sides.
Arks were often referred to as "Sunday toys" because of their religious connotations. Children were only allowed to play with them on Sundays, and this is probably a main reason why so many are still available and in reasonably good condition. The animals, unfortunately, were contained inside the ark which left them to bang up against each other causing both minor damages, usually to their appendages and their paint. The arks would have either a slide on one side opening to the animals, or the whole roof and sides section would lift off, giving one access to the interior.
Salesmen from Germany would have elaborate books on toys which they would show to potential customers and then take orders based on the examples shown. The books were large and often hand painted showing hundreds of different animals and toys that could be ordered. Those books today are very rare and extremely valuable in themselves. Later, these books and pictures were printed and shipped around the world for people to place orders. In this country arks were big business, and both Wanamakers in Philadelphia and F.A.O.Schwarz specialized in them. In the mid-nineteenth century there were a few sizes to choose from with basic deep or flat bottom designs. Eventually, before World War I, the choices became many – from small to large in twenty sizes, from deep bottom to flat, from chromolithographed to straw sides, from stenciled to mass printed paper sides all with a huge assortment of different animals. The individual hand carved animals of the 19 th century gave way to rings of wood which were carved in one shape and then sliced one after another in same shaped animals per ring – a quicker and more efficient way but definitely not offering the same quality of craftsmanship.
Animals were often sold separately. In a 1893 catalogue a dozen boxes often small animals each were thirty-five cents. The larger animals went for eight dollars for a dozen boxes of seventy five each, and unpainted ones went for two dollars a dozen, with twelve animals each. The animals represent those known and those totally unknown. There are designs of strange animals never seen with striking colors and fantastical stripes and dots and whorls. There are monkeys sitting on balls and standing on two feet. There are rare insects including spiders and ladybugs and crickets and beetles. There are people carved with full facial features and bodies that are miniature works of art, and then there are those on circular posts with round hats and clothes to their feet. The choices are numerous and the expertise is diverse. But when all is said and done, there are not many who do not love an ark and cannot appreciate the appeal and pleasure it gives to both children and adults.