Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Four Little Ponies: the Wagner Animals of West Germany

Ponies and seashells: underrated design motif, imho.

When I was a horse-crazed little girl, catalogs were still a thing you ordered from rather than the internet, and one of the most alluring catalogs we received was educational/old-fashioned toy catalog Hearth Song. It was there that I first saw the flocked, smiling Wagner ponies. I believe they were sold with felt and wire elf riders. The catalog noted the colors of the ponies varied and that they would pick for you. This surprise element was exciting. I placed my first order with allowance money, and soon two tiny, chubby ponies arrived: one chestnut and one pinto. I named them Red and Buttercup. I ordered again, and although I was worried about duplicates, this time the ponies were a black one I named Aristocrat and a palomino I named Goldie (good lord).

Sometimes I imagined the four ponies were pulling me in a cart, and sometimes I imagined they belonged to a quartet of brothers and sisters. There was something so friendly and comforting about these little ponies with their hard papier-mache bodies and soft flocking. They were in between the candy-colored My Little Ponies and the hyper-realistic Breyer Models. While I acquired dozens of both of those in various stages of my horse-loving life, they are mostly gone now, donated to new generations of horse-crazy kids. But the four Wagner ponies have stayed with me through high school, college, and various apartments.

Wave your hooves in the air! The famous stickers.

As an adult, I occasionally tried to learn more about the ponies whose bellies were marked with the sticker "Wagner Handwork West-Germany," but I didn't find much online. Even eBay didn't turn up many leads. But the internet grows quickly. Recently, I started looking again in the vintage section of Etsy, and found various Wagner animals: dogs, donkeys, zebra, lions, bunnies...

A listing on Etsy.

Now I was determined to learn more. Soon I had found Wagner Animals, a fairly new blog at the time. The author, children's book author Christina Wilsdon, had the same difficulties I had in trying to find the history of these beguiling toys, but was much more proactive than I had been. She tracked down contact information for the firm to learn its history, and found that it was started in the 1940s by Fritz Wagner. While I just have my four little ponies, Wilsdon has a plethora of Wagner animals and has become an expert on the figurines. Her Wagner blog doesn't have many posts yet, but it already has a wealth of information and photos, from the company's many cute lambs and rams to its odd green pig. She also started a Wagner Shutterfly group where collectors can share their photos (sign-up needed).

Baby ducks in their original packaging on froghollowgift's eBay store.

And the diversity of Wagner animals is truly stunning. From mammoths to pandas to wild boars to anthropomorphic mules (those last two found via Colleen Abbott's extensive Kunstlershutz Pinterest board), there are all sorts of species in this flocked menagerie. The company closed in 1998, but by searching for terms like "Wagner," "Wagner flocked," "Kunstlershutz" (often on the labels, this actually means "artist protection"), or "Wagner-Tiere," one can find various animals available on sites like Etsy, eBay, and other antique shops. European 4 you seems to have quite a lot at the moment.

This pretty cow is the Milka chocolate logo.

Perhaps because of the company's closing and the trans-Atlantic divide of its fanbase, there still isn't a lot of information out there. However, when you can find pictures, it's not uncommon to see commentors noting their own Wagner animals they currently have or had as a child.

Overall, it's an interesting little story. An artist creates a toy company that makes happy-faced, high-quality animals. The company survives the turmoil of Germany's history, but not the inevitable march of time with plastic, mass-produced toys becoming the norm. But decades later, people continue to be captivated by the sweet figurines and seek out their history.

Katy Kristin created this whimsical tableau with a Wagner giraffe.

Thanks to everyone who let me use their pictures! 

Note: I got no kickbacks or financial incentives from any of the vendors I've linked to...I just got really into this Wagner quest! At one point I was pretty sure I was going to end up in Germany in some sort of Dan Brown novel adventure, or at least in how I imagine a Dan Brown novel adventure to be. The Flocked MacGuffin.


  1. I'm so pleased be able to represent the Etsy community with modernpoetry's little poodle dog toy! Thank you so much for a charming and informative article.

  2. I enjoyed reading your Wagner post! I got my first one, a little skunk, when I was a kid visiting San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square Toy Shop. And I also loved Hearth Song!

    Katy Kristin

    1. Loved Ghirardelli Square growing up! :) And Hearth Song used to have an SF storefront. I think it was maybe in Laurel Village?

  3. I also decided to find out more about my Wagner animals this year as I was taking down Christmas. I purchased mine back in the 1970's and they all have an ornament string. Since January I've added about a dozen Kunstlershutz animals (no-ornament version) to my collection. Thanks for posting about the ponies - they are adorable!

  4. Hey! I just stumbled upon your post as I got ready to put up something on my long-neglected Wagner website. Thanks for the mention! I remember the ponies being in the Hearthsong catalog...I remember being cross that I couldn't pick out the color I wanted (I should have adopted your attitude of delight in the serendipity of the color choice :) Still have all my ponies from childhood too!