Two by two, with the snakes included too

Union Leader Correspondent
September 23. 2018 10:05PM
This wooden and tin example has proven sturdy enough to survive the not-quite-biblical-scale punishments of the Stichts' children and grandchildren, including Peityn, age 4. (Bea Lewis/Union Leader Correspondent)

MEREDITH — Noah’s Ark toys have a long tradition in American culture and were among the most popular children’s playthings of the 19th century in Europe and the U.S. Nearly every Victorian family of means had one and generations of children were endeared by the story of a man, a boat and two of every animal.

Karen and David Sticht of Meredith found their first Noah’s Ark during a visit to the Four Corners Brick House in the early 1980s. The 1810 federal-style home and barn in Gilmanton sells antiques, reproductions, arts, crafts and decorative items.

“She liked it so I started buying them,” David said of how his wife’s interest piqued what became a collecting interest.

At the last count, the couple had acquired 15 arks of varying sizes each with its own menagerie of animals ranging from anteaters to zebras.

Their own children played with them when they were displayed around Christmas, and now their grandchildren do, the arks making joyful memories and gaining status as treasured family heirlooms.

Noah’s Arks have been made since at least the 1700s. Rooted in Puritan belief that children should be seen and not heard, especially on the Sabbath, the only permissible toys after attending church were those with biblical themes. In the days before public schooling, home education was more of a necessity than a choice, and handmade arks served as a toy and a learning tool.

Examples can be found at the Smithsonian, including one crafted in 1888 in Searsport, Maine. Most arks found from this period were made in Germany or were made in America by German immigrants.
Each of the animals are hand-painted with great attention to detail, giving each a unique and endearing expression. The rarest animals are the small ones such as insects and snakes. This pair of Kiwi birds is uncommon (the bird is native to Australia). Also uncommon are animal pairs that have different poses such as one standing and the other grazing. (Bea Lewis/Union Leader Correspondent)

Many of the animals in these arks are fanciful. Production in the 19th century was largely a cottage industry. One family may have made only horses, while another only monkeys, but the bulk of the animals and most of the birds are products of the imaginations of the artisans. In the 1840s, few Europeans had ever seen African or Asian animals. Green and blue mammals were common.

Toy ark makers also used poetic license when it came to the actual boat. Some are flat-bottomed like a river boat, while others are bow-shaped and can rock. Some have lithographed details like windows and doors while others are all hand-painted.

While the number of animals that went with each vessel tended to vary as much as the design, all seem to feature Noah and his wife.
Noah and his wife are shown in the ark's lifeboat. (Bea Lewis/Union Leader Correspondent)

On a recent afternoon, the Stichts’ 4-year-old granddaughter, Peityn Schaub, delighted in playing with the largest ark, lowering the center hinged gangplank and matching up the animals with their respective mates to parade them inside. 

“I didn’t remember anything about the lifeboat in the story,” said David, as his granddaughter decides that Noah and his wife should take up residence in the launch hanging from davits from the ark’s main deck.

Some of the nicest old examples sell for thousands of dollars. At Northeast Auctions’ sale of Americana in Portsmouth that took place in August 2000, a Noah’s Ark with 200 animals and a dozen figures of Noah’s family reached a price of $28,750.

Human InterestAnimalsNH PeopleHistoryMeredith

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