J.S. from Santa Barbara has a little stuffed toy fox from the 1960s capturing all the kitsch and whimsy of the era. The fox is wearing a visor and double-breasted black vest from which a playing card — the ace of diamonds — peeks out from the pocket. He's also sporting a black string tie and, like any good Vegas card shark, a dealer's apron. In one hand, he holds a dice, revealing a snake eye.
A hang tag, still intact, reads "Dream Pets, R Dakin and Company, San Francisco, California, product of Japan (All New Materials), Las Vegas #1175." This little fox was meant to be a memento of Las Vegas, fast becoming the gaming capital of the world in the 1960s.
In an indication of how these little toys captured the imaginations of collectors back in the '60s, whoever purchased this toy penned in the following: "Seattle, 1967." These geographical remembrances were something that the Dakin Co. was very successful at doing. Families were traveling in the 1960s, and little souvenirs were important to the youngsters. Families such as mine had four or more kids in that big station wagon. These toys were cute and affordable and made into a series so that kids wanted to collect them as they traveled. We will see that Dakin was savvy.
I am astounded by the variety of these whimsical little creations by the Dakin Co. Among them are an octopus wearing eyeshadow, a hippo nurse wearing a hospital candy striper's gown, a lobster with a jaunty sailor cap. Then there's a whole series of little animals, like the one belonging to J.S., that remind someone of a certain area of the U.S. How did these come about?
Back in 1955, Richard Y. Dakin, a firearms dealer, began to import pricey handcrafted Italian and Spanish shotguns, doing a nice but selective business. Richard son's, Roger, who joined the firm in 1957, began to import bikes, sailboats and a few nice toy trains, along with the guns. The trains arrived from Japan cushioned by a few little stuffed toys, used as packing material. Back at company headquarters in San Francisco, Roger thought he would have a go with these little stuffed animals. From the firearm business to the stuffed toy business was a big leap, but Roger took it, and ordered a trial lot from Japan.
So successful were these little stuffed animals — none more than 8 inches tall — that the late 1950s political conventions asked for a Republican mascot (elephant) and Democratic mascot (donkey).
The accidental packing material from Japan was a portend of corporate success. Roger Dakin had to buy a factory for the new interest in the small toys. Japan could not make them fast enough! In 1964, Dakin bought a plush toy factory in the Tulare County town of Lindsay. By the mid-1960s, Dakin had factories to make these "Dream Pets" in Japan, Hong Kong and Mexico. By the 1970s, Dakin was selling these creatures in 35 countries.
If you were a kid in the 1990s, you were no stranger to Dakin stuffed animals or cartoon figures. Dakin/Applause Co. (a merger) capitalized on a new trend — the action figure — and you might have even treasured a California Raisin, Smurf or "Star Trek" stuffed toy as a young Gen Xer.
As a boomer, I have always remembered one particular Dakin toy: a 1960s stuffed red dachshund, labeled down his back "Niagara Falls." This was an autograph toy, holding memories of a trip to the Maid of the Mist. Signatures of my cousins, and a few unknown visitors I met, are penned on his back.
Dakin made such tourist industry toys for all the major areas in the U.S. The company also made a line for Disney shops.
So what is J.S.'s little gambling Vegas fox worth? As with all toys, condition is key, and J.S's is perfect. A collector would pay $20, but a connoisseur of Dream Pets (yes, they exist!) would drop more than $100 for this foxy gambler.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
Sign up for Elizabeth's newsletter