by: Michael Kabel

    They're as much a part of Americana as the Teddy Bear, but the sock monkey's true origins lie in Europe of the late 19th Century. When stuffed animals became all the rage as the latest must-have gift for children and nurseries, it wasn't long before the small, cotton wadding filled toys found their way to America. At that time, the Arts & Crafts movement was just coming into its own here in the United States. With an emphasis on the joys of creating, and a uniquely American "down home" appeal, the stuffed animal was a natural for Arts and Crafts' eager enthusiasts, and homemade stuffed toys began appearing almost at once.

    Beginning in the 1910s and 20s, working-class mothers began sewing old and used up hosiery into various shapes and sizes for their children, making new playthings and mementos from household scraps. The first sock monkeys were stuffed with rags and even wheat husks, giving them a cushiony appeal similar to the more expensive cotton batting. The earliest known creation of a sock monkey dates to 1919, but it would be another fourteen years before the beloved plaything would reach its classic form.

    Today the most famous example is the Red Heel Sock Monkey, known for its distinctive red swatch that appears on various parts of the monkey's body. In 1932, the Nelson Knitting Company of Rockford, Illinois began manufacturing its "De-Tec-Tip" red-heeled sock. The sock monkey grew in popularity during the World War II years, and by the mid-1950s the company was including instructions on making the monkey with each pair of socks sold - even getting a patent for its design from the United States Government. Although a larger corporation now owns Nelson, the distinctive red-heeled socks (monkey instructions included) continue to be manufactured to this day.

    Vintage sock monkeys are today a prized collector's item, with the oldest typically dating to the 1950s, and most coming from the 1970s. The means of creating them and their materials - wood, a few buttons for the nose and eyes, red yarn for the mouth - remains virtually unchanged from their beginnings a hundred years ago. Perhaps the most significant change is the switch from old rags or cotton batting to synthetic, hypoallergenic poyfil as the main stuffing. 

    Over the years, sock monkeys' sweetly simple face and bearing have made them not only a symbol of childhood and Americana but also of innocence as well. They continue to fascinate artists and authors, who frequently use their unpretentious charm to convey honesty and loyalty. In 2005, artist Mandy Jouan created "Buttons," the world's largest sock monkey, who stood over 15 feet tall! There are also sock monkey greeting cards, diaries, and other themed merchandise made by artisans across the world.

    And last but not least, the Sock Monkey Ministry is a special charity that donates sock monkeys to soldiers serving overseas, terminally ill and abused children, AIDS and cancer patients, and to anyone who could use a cheerful companion.