Monkey shines

Consumers are going ape over a nearly forgotten piece of Americana: the hand-crafted toys known as sock monkeys.

June 06, 1999|By Grand Forks Herald

A long time ago in a land of not-so- plenty, love turned red-heeled work socks into monkeys. Not real monkeys, mind you, but a handicraft that endured for decades and kept children company in days when toys were dear.

These sock monkeys, a piece of Americana nearly forgotten, are experiencing new life in a wave of nostalgia. They can be found in television commercials, at craft shows, shops and, of course, on their own Web pages, where they've developed unique personalities and post photos of themselves. Many of the monkeys promise to answer all e-mail, though one has to wonder how, since the monkeys have no fingers.

It's hard to say where the monkeys first came from. Even the company that owns the exclusive rights to make the Original Rockford (Ill.) Red Heel socks isn't sure. The patent on the sock goes back to 1915, say company officials, but the monkeys apparently began taking shape after World War II.

The monkey's origins, sock makers suggest, are on the nation's farms, where money was tough to come by but women were great seamstresses. It was an inexpensive way to make a toy for a child, using what they already had.

The monkeys all but disappeared in the late 1950s and 1960s, fueled perhaps by newfound prosperity and the shunning of things that smacked of leaner times.

Bill Batchelder, president of Bemidji Woolen Mills, which sells the Rockford socks ($7.50 for two pair, plus $4.50 shipping; 888-751-5166), says Rockford's parent company, Fox River, has seen an astounding number of new accounts in the past six months, the biggest increase in years. And it's pretty clear they aren't meant for wearing.

"It's the amount of people that call from distant locations" like Texas, Arizona and Florida, he said. "And there are people out there that reorder these socks. You know they're making them into sock monkeys."

"It's a nostalgic resurgence," Batchelder suggests. "People saying, 'I want my grandchild to have one because I had one.' "

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