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Double Take: A Trip to Toyland

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If you are a regular reader of the Double Take series, you’ll know that I often come across photos that pique my curiosity while in the course of looking for something else. Today’s entry started much the same way. Within a search for images of Abraham Lincoln, I hit upon an unexpected photo. The caption was: Lincoln, Abraham A. Stuntz. I wasn’t sure what to expect in a photo with that caption. Would it be a portrait of one or two people? The photo of a building seen below was definitely a surprise.

LINCOLN, ABRAHAM A. STUNTZ. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1913.
LINCOLN, ABRAHAM A. STUNTZ. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1913.

Time to investigate further! My first thought that this photo simply had a completely wrong caption was proven incorrect by looking closely at the photo. The awning over the front door has the name of A. Stuntz, so the name does belong in the caption. There are clearly goods in the windows, so it’s probably a store of some kind. I opened up the larger digital file to look into the store window:

Detail of LINCOLN, ABRAHAM A. STUNTZ. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1913.
Detail of LINCOLN, ABRAHAM A. STUNTZ. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1913.

I see some gloves and lace hanging there, as well as quite a few toys. A few wagons, horses, dolls, cars and other interesting items. Maybe a toy store, maybe a dry goods shop or a five and dime? The photo dates from 1913, so what does the A. Stuntz part of this photo have to do with a President who had been gone for nearly 50 years at that point?

Finding related photos is always a good tactic, so I did a search for the name likely to give me fewer results than Abraham Lincoln in our vast collection: Stuntz. Three photos come up, including the one I’ve already viewed. Progress! One photo, also from the Harris & Ewing Collection, and with the same odd caption and date, appears to be the interior of the store. Maybe we can now figure out what kind of store it really is! Let’s look more closely:

LINCOLN, ABRAHAM A. STUNTZ. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1913.
LINCOLN, ABRAHAM A. STUNTZ. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1913.
Detail of LINCOLN, ABRAHAM A. STUNTZ. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1913.
Detail of LINCOLN, ABRAHAM A. STUNTZ. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1913.

At first glance, I do spot quite a few toys. On the lower left, a stack of doll beds. On the right side of the aisle, near the middle of the photo, I see a dollhouse, a drum, some kind of rolling toy, and a child-size chair or two. Zooming in on the tall glass-front display cabinets reveals, from left to right in the detail photo, (right), a horse on a stick, a number of dolls and houses, and at far right, a tea set. In the rest of the store, clothing, including a shirt and some lace garments, as well as small whisk brooms and shoelaces leave the question only partially answered. And there are many drawers and cabinets I can’t peer into! It may be both a toy store, a dry goods store and perhaps more.

The other photo in the search for Stuntz is a broader street view of New York Avenue, N.W. in Washington, D.C. It also dates from about a decade earlier, between 1900 and 1905, and comes from a different collection, the Washington D.C. Street Survey. I don’t immediately see the connection, but looking more carefully at the notes in the catalog record and at the photo itself helps me find the Stuntz shop in the photo. I spot a similar banner hanging above the store window. It does appear to be the same building, so now we know where the A. Stuntz shop was located in Washington, D.C.

[View of New York Ave., N.W., North side, looking West from 12th Street] Photo, [1901].
[View of New York Ave., N.W., North side, looking West from 12th Street] Photo, [1901].
Detail of [View of New York Ave., N.W., North side, looking West from 12th Street] Photo, [1901].
Detail of [View of New York Ave., N.W., North side, looking West from 12th Street] Photo, [1901].
When I looked at the high resolution file for this photo, I found it interesting to see what other businesses lined this part of New York Ave. N.W. near 12th Street in the early 1900s. I spot quite a few stores focused on clothing and shoes: a boot and shoe manufacturer, a tailor, a laundry. A very close look at the A. Stuntz banner (right) provides the word TOYS and before it, a partial word, maybe a D and an S. Based on my observations of the contents, I’m willing to guess the sign may have read Dry Goods & Toys in its entirety.

But still, I’ve found no clues in the photos about the connection to Abraham Lincoln suggested in the caption. Time to turn to additional written sources, such as newspapers.

Thanks to the uniqueness of the name Stuntz, it doesn’t take me long to find multiple references that explain the connection! None of the references are contemporary to the time of Lincoln, but they are pretty compelling stories nonetheless. A page of articles entitled “Christmas Scene” in the December 19, 1937 edition of the Washington Evening Star includes a photo almost identical to the one that launched this study, so I started there.

“President Lincoln spend the saddest four years of any President in the White House, and yet he took the greatest amount of pleasure making Christmas as happy a day as the conditions would permit, and nothing gave him more delight than buying toys for little ‘Tad’ from the toy shop which stood until a few years ago at 1207 New York avenue N.W., now a bus station.” (p. C-4)

Finally, the connection suggested in that brief caption is clearly made, and President Lincoln did have a direct link to this little shop!

In later paragraphs, we learn that the Stuntz was Joseph Stuntz, and when he died in 1864, his widow, Mrs. Appolonia Stuntz took over, hence the A. Stuntz on the banner. We also learn that it was termed a variety store at the time and candies and other goods were sold there in addition to toys. This long article continues, explaining how Lincoln and Tad would visit the store together, and that Lincoln would also slip out of the White House, just a few blocks away, to surprise Tad with gifts such as toy soldiers.

A much later article in the Chicago Daily Tribune ties this little toy shop to the Lincolns again. On Dec. 27, 1952, an article relates that at Christmastime 1864, the Civil War had finally turned a corner and was heading towards victory. In talking about this potential good news, and how it somewhat lifted the heavy burden of war from Lincoln’s shoulders, the shop comes up again: “There had doubtless been also mysterious visits to Stuntz’s toy shop several blocks away from the White House, that beloved shop where Lincoln often walked with Tad, to forget his burdens for a moment by joining him in a little boy’s delight in toyland.”

It seems that a trip to a curious store because of a curious caption led me to toyland – a fitting end to our trip on a cold December day!

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Comments (5)

  1. What a wonderful way to begin a day — by reading this uplifting and photo-researching-inspiring article.

    Not only is Kristi Finefield a world-class researcher, her descriptive and educational writing is awesome!

  2. Wow: great to see how the high resolution scanning that lets you really zoom in, together with helpful words in the textual metadata, support this kind of detective work! Then the payoff comes from the searchable-text newspapers. Very nice.

  3. Thank you for sharing this gem of a story! This is what makes history come alive . . . this and the efforts of people like you who work to uncover it.

  4. Delightful story and the research that have lead to it.
    Would be interesting also to find the descendants of the shop owner(if any) A. Stuntz, who are they, where..etc.

  5. I did a short search and found this site:

    Here is the whole article which has a little more about the shop and Lincoln’s connection:

    Parks and Pennsylvania Avenue: Stuntz Toy Shop

    President Lincoln liked to take walks with his young son Tad. Among their destinations was the toy shop owned by Joseph Stuntz and later his widow Apolonia in a small two-story brick row house at 1207 New York Avenue, NW, just a few blocks from the White House.

    According to Lincoln scholar Charles Lachman, Stuntz “was a retired French soldier who carved wooden toy soldiers in a tiny back room.”1 According to historian Allen Clark, “Mr. Lincoln came to the modest emporium to buy toys for his son ‘Tad’ – tin and wooden soldiers in bright colors with guns and the soldiers’ captains with swords; and cannon and everything else to arrange in peaceful miniature in counterpart to the terrible things of savage war.”
    On one visit, Lincoln reportedly asked Stuntz: “Does it hurt you as much to have your soldiers shot down as it does me to have mine?”

    After the death of the Lincolns’ son Willie in February 1862, Lincoln was particularly solicitous of Tad’s happiness. “I want to give him all the toys I did not have,” said Lincoln of Tad, “and all the toys that I would have given the boy [Willie] who went away.”

    Stuntz’s also featured a “penny counter” where children could invest in sweets. After Apolonia’s death in 1901, the Washington Post reported: “Mrs. Stuntz made a specialty of her penny counter for the young ones. On this counter she exhibited an almost unbelievable number of wondrously beautiful articles – some to eat and others to behold and to fondle — for a penny. The young ones of the days long ago would line up with wide eyes in front of those windows and play ‘choosins,’ whether they had the requisite penny or not. Sometimes it would take actual hours for those who had wheedled pennies out of the parents to decide how to invest the same.”

    Then there is this site with another coloured photo of the shop:

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