The Cotton Wool Toy Museum

There is a special place in Moscow called the Moscow Toy Manufactory. An old technique of making cotton wool toys using only cotton wool and glue is being revived there. 

The Manufactory has a Museum which displays products of 22 famous artels, factories and art workshops that have been making the toys since the 1920s.

The Moscow Toy Manufactory was founded on the basis of the Family Traditions Crafts Center, the only association in Russia that is engaged in the revival of traditional cotton wool toys at a professional level. The Manufactory’s team includes international artists, designers and animators. By applying modern knowledge and capabilities, they restored the old technique of making toys that uses pharmaceutical cotton wool and potato starch glue; moreover they also breathed new life into it.

Work at the Manufactory is modeled after the artels of the 1920s–1940s. First, the head artist designs a collection of toys. After approval of a sample, he divides the process of making toys into stages and distributes them to different craftsmen: sculpting heads from old molds, painting faces, creating clothes with accessories, decorating with mica and pastels. This coordinated work allows you to create a collection with any number of toys: from 100 to 10,000 plus. All toys will be unique, but consistent with the given sample.

In Russia, cotton wool toys have been produced since the 19th century. In large part, the craft owes its origins to the high cost of glass Christmas tree ornaments. They were imported from Europe, but the majority of residents couldn’t afford them. Instead, Russian masters came up with an idea on how to make inexpensive toys from ordinary cotton wool and cardboard with a wire frame and faces of papier-mache. Until 1917, nice painted cotton wool toys could be found in just about every family. In the 1920s, when the unrest caused by the revolution subsided, the production of these toys resumed. At first they were produced by artels, and later in new factories. The production went on until the 70s, when the original figurines made of cotton wool were replaced by the plastic ones. From that moment on, the tradition of cotton wool toy making fell into decay.

The Cotton Wool Toy Museum has brought the toys out of oblivion and showed the general public once again how charming and unique they were. Invaluable support was given by Galina Ananyina, the ideologist and curator of the Museum, President of the Foundation for the Development of the Art Industry and Jewelry Art. She helped to create a museum in an atmospheric 18th century cell on the territory of the Patriarchal courtyard of the Nikolo-Perervinsky Monastery, a monument of historical importance and a cultural heritage site of Russia. By happy coincidence, there used to be a toy making workshop until 1969 in one of the monastery churches.

The exposition includes not only toys, but also cardboard ornaments and elements of decor. The Museum exhibits look so strong and durable so it seems that they are made of ceramics or porcelain. Yet they are created by hand from cotton wool. Moreover, some of the exhibits are almost 100 years old and according to the Manufacture specialists, a cotton wool toy, if properly stored and carefully used, has no expiration date.

The new Museum found a great response in the hearts of many people. Older visitors share memories with the staff and present their childhood toys from family collections. The oldest toy called Clown on a Hoop, which the museum management had planned to buy at an auction, was actually donated by the parishioners of the church. The museum gladly accepts old toys whether in good or poor condition and museum craftsmen restore them. For visitors, excursions and master classes are held, where you can make a cotton wool toy with your own hands.

The Manufactory attracts increasingly more people with the art of making toys by means of large-scale competitions. For example, more than 100 works from 67 regions of Russia were submitted to the All-Russian Waiting for Christmas Miracles competition. Professionals and amateurs participated in it — anyone who preserves the traditions of Christmas celebration. The results of the competition were summed up at the 28th International Christmas Educational Readings in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

How is the toy being made nowadays? It is interesting that all its parts are made almost simultaneously: one craftsman makes a wire frame and winds the base of white cotton wool, another one paints the face, the third one dresses the toy. Sometimes the master would use ready-made colored cotton wool, or he would make a toy from white cotton wool, and then paint it as per design. The toys’ faces are different and by them you can usually guess which master painted one. 

The Manufactory actively teaches new craftsmen in the art of making cotton toys. Artists develop a different technique for each of the toy collections — Winter Fun, Pushkin’s Tales, Retro Toys and others collections. Based on each technique, novice craftsmen have already produced more than 5,000 toys. 

In the nearest future the Manufactory is planing to hold the Fairytales of the Peoples of Russia competition of cotton wool toys, supported by the Presidential Foundation for Cultural Initiatives. After it the toys will be displayed at a thematic exhibition in the Museum. In addition off-site events will be organized for the competition winners and nominees.

The Cotton Wool Toy Manufactory and Museum are paving the way for the revival of the old craft in the traditions of the 20th century artels. They clearly demonstrate a unique cultural heritage of the Russian toy. It is also up to us to preserve this art with due care and actively develop and pass it on to future generations.

Olga Zadonskaya
Family Traditions Crafts Center.
Photo credits: “Tales of the Peoples of Russia — Puppet Ethnography” competition organized by the Cotton Wool Toy Museum