When they asked me to write my grandmother's obituary this weekend, both my father and his sister insisted that I mention her time working in the "Popeye shop."
The chief industry in our hometown for the past 140 years has been wood turning—first spools, and later dowels and handles for kitchen utensils. But for a time in the 1920s and '30s, the mill produced as a sideline wooden dolls of characters like Popeye and Little Orphan Annie.
These toys are easy to spot today at flea markets and on eBay. Although the pieces were rarely stamped with any identifying mark, it's hard to miss the particular body which, when detached from its limbs and stripped of paint, looks exactly like a spool. The arms, legs, and heads, all made of turned wood, are attached to the hollow spool with an elastic, making the joints strong enough to stand on their own, but also flexible enough to fix in a variety of poses. [Link]My grandmother had the job of threading elastic through and assembling the body parts. The finished dolls were packed in large sacks and carted over to the depot for shipping. She left her job when pregnant with my father in 1940, which was around the time the Popeye shop shut down.
Making novelty toys was indeed a novelty in our part of the world, and one of our town's few claims to fame (we can also claim L. L. Bean as a native son, but my grandmother was in no way involved in his creation). I'm proud to say that my Grammie played a part in the enterprise, and that possible examples of her handiwork now command such high prices on eBay that I can't afford to buy a single one.