A Nodding Acquaintance
George Washington Lafayette Fox
These days almost any Z-list celebrity or sportsperson has a bobble-head dedicated to them but back in the 19th century this was not the case. Although a huge variety of nodding figures were made, maybe the finest were to be produced in the Thuringen town of Sonneberg in Germany. They were usually generic, caricature, and sometimes grotesque in form and design but only a few represented actual people who would be recognisable to the masses by their celebrity or notoriety. Let me introduce you to Mr. George Washington Lafayette Fox, probably a name that means little or nothing to you (apart from being a pretty impressive moniker!), but he was the person used as the subject of the Humpty Dumpty Bank such was his popularity at the time.

His life story is fascinating. He was born in 1825 in Cambridge Mass. into a family of mediocre rural actors and at the height of his popularity he was the highest paid entertainer in America. Although his parents enrolled him in an apprenticeship, as they wanted him to have a more secure occupation than that of a performer, this did not pan out and he rejoined the family business. Eventually he left and moved to New York where he joined the Bowery's National Theatre on Chatham St where over the next 7 years he honed his skills on comedic roles. Inspired by mentors to undertake Pantomime he became a popular performer there and later at the New Bowery Theatre where he became lessee and manager.

When the "War Between the States" broke out, he enlisted and rose to the rank of Major in the 8th NY Infantry and saw action at the Battle of Bull Run. After the war he resumed his acting career until a fire at the New Bowery Theatre forced him out of that venue.

In 1866 he became stage manager at the Olympic Theatre Broadway, between Houston & leeker Streets, and a year later came the breakthrough which would secure his celebrity status. He created his signature role as the clown in Humpty Dumpty, the first American Pantomime to be performed in two acts. It ran for 488 consecutive performances and played at the Olympic 943 times in total and within New York an amazing 1268 times, all with Fox as the lead player. His health began to fail in 1875 after an accident on stage broke his nose and damaged an optical nerve. Subsequently his behaviour on stage became very erratic and confrontational, including attacking the audience with chairs and other stage props. These outbursts effectively ended his career and he finally succumbed to a series of strokes that lead to his death in 1877 at the age of 52. (It was later established that his extreme behaviour was the result of advanced syphilis.)

Whether the nodding figure I possess is a one-off, maybe made for Fox himself, we will never know. What I do know is that it was previously in the possession of Eugene F. Van Duren ( 1864-1937) who was the General Manager of the Academy of Music, located at 14th St. and Irving Place in New York City, and then passed to his nephew Donald J. Van Duren. I acquired it in auction in late 2011. It is of the highest quality measuring 10-1/2" high and depicts Fox wearing the costume of the character Humpty Dumpty. His popularity was such that this image was used in merchandising as, apart from the Bank, I have seen advertisements for Sea Foam Baking Powder and a quite delightful book which is owned by Susan Hettinger.

Mr. Fox as Humpty was also the subject of a tobacconist's folk art carving which can be viewed at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg VA.

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