Our eyes met. She was perched on a tall shelf in the back corner of a rural Pennsylvania antique shop. I knew instantly that she would be coming home with me.
Standing at only approximately 10 1/2” (~27cm) tall and only 8” (~20cm) wide with paws outstretched, the gray-and-white stuffed knitted kitten had striking yellow-and-blue hand-embroidered eyes, a light-pink nose, no whiskers, and a small sweet red mouth. Her white was no longer pristine, and her white-tipped gray tail was barely attached. Part of the knitting on the back of her head was unraveling, revealing the cotton wadding and string stuffing. But sewn firmly to the back of her right paw was her label: Mrs. Ryan’s Knitted Toys, Can Be Laundered.
Who was this Mrs. Ryan, and why did she knit kittens?
Long before the computer age and the advent of Etsy, talented individuals sold their handcrafts at fairs or passed word of mouth through friends and neighbors. In 1942, in order to welcome a new grandchild, Rutland, Vermont resident Mrs. Jeremiah H. Ryan sent a dressed, hand-knitted kitten to her daughter. The nurses and other maternity patients in the Ogdensburg, NY hospital adored this precious little kitten, and soon Mrs. Ryan became very, very busy knitting to fulfill the multiple (paid) requests for more kittens. Knitting the head alone would take about an hour. Her husband, a retired salesman, noticed the popularity of the kittens in that they sold themselves! Quite unintentionally, a new business was born.
But Mrs. Ryan couldn’t continue the knitting by hand, so she and her husband advertised for, located, and then purchased an old knitting machine. I believe this may have been a circular bed-sock knitting machine because of a reference to a crank during operation. But in order to continue kitten production, aside from figuring out how to use the newly acquired contraption, Mrs. Ryan had to adapt her hand-knitting pattern to the machine. By now, she was filling orders a dozen at a time for a leading store in the area.
In an interview from the August 1949 issue of The Toy Trader, Mrs. Ryan described how she and her husband worked as a team for production. He would knit the toys and brush them (originally, the kittens were much fuzzier), and then she would cut, sew, and prep them for him to stuff. She then shaped and embroidered the faces and attached the heads. Together they worked on making the clothes and dressing them. Besides kittens, Mrs. Ryan and her husband also made bunnies, puppies, squirrels, elephants, children, Santa Claus, and even elephant/donkey political pairs.
The Legacy Continues
In 1958, Mrs. Ryan moved in with her daughter and her family, the Eaton’s of Grand Rapids, MI, and continued to knit and sew. New printed tags on her toys reflect this change of manufacturing location. Although Mrs. Ryan passed away in 1961, the Eaton family continued the business, first still in the family home and then expanding to a small shop. By 1964, the company supported a traveling salesman in the east and 18 employees, each assigned specialized jobs like turner, stuffer, necker, shaper, and face maker. Production yielded approximately 30–40 dozen toys per day. Unfortunately, this is where my trail of research grew cold. I don’t know when or why Mrs. Ryan’s Knitted Toys ceased operations.
During my antiquing, I would keep a lookout for more kittens—but none were found. Judging from the very worn condition of my kitten, she was once obviously a well-loved toy, and now only her stuffing holds the memories of whispered bedtime secrets. Perhaps many of the knitted toys still remain with their original families. After an extensive search, I found the newer kitten from an Etsy seller in Washington. Across the nation, Mrs. Ryan’s legacy will continue to live on in her cherished knitted toys.
Being a Kat herself, it was inevitable that Kathy Augustine's life would always be intertwined with felines. She and her husband live in rural Pennsylvania and pay the mortgage for several cats, a dog, an angora goat, and a small collection of sheep.