Thursday, June 20, 2019

All the Pretty Paper Ponies, Part One: Sam Savitt Horse & Pony "Paper Dolls"

When I was a kid, there weren't just 3D model horses in plastic, ceramic, metal, and (later) resin. There were also punch-out paper horses that I needed to have.  Or at least that's how I justified saving up my 25-cents-a-week allowance to buy them.  

With one rather bedraggled exception (which I'll tell you about another time), none of my paper horses survived my childhood.  One of my favorite sets of "horse paper dolls" was this one. The only copy of it I found online was the UK edition, but the punch-out paper horses were the same as the set I owned.

The book contained several pages showing various horse breeds at work.  I carefully punched them out and played with them often.  They never stood on the shelves with my model horses, although the paper horses did have stands so they could remain upright on top of a desk or table.

My paper horses always reminded me of the scene early in Enid Bagnold's classic book National Velvet. Fourteen-year-old Velvet Brown has returned to her home in late 1920s rural England one evening after having exercised one of her own paper horses. She had carefully cut the horse from a photograph in a newspaper:

“He went beautifully!” said Velvet, and laying down a tiny paper horse on the table she wrenched at the gold band that bound her teeth back and laid it beside the horse.

...“Look at him,” she said lovingly, taking up the paper horse. “I must unsaddle him and rub him down.” The heads were bent on the lesson books again and Velvet took a tiny bridle of cotton threads from the horse. Then going to a shell-box on the sideboard she brought it to the table....

Velvet opened the box and took out a stable rubber two inches square, a portion of her handkerchief, hemmed round. Laying the little horse flat on the table she rubbed him with delicacy in circular motions, after having taken a paper saddle from his back.

The horse was a racer cut from the Bystander. He stood three inches high and had a raking neck and a keen, veined face. By dint of much rubbing the paper had given off a kind of coat, and now as Velvet rubbed there came a suede-like sheen on the horse’s paper body. He was dark, most carefully cut out, and pasted upon cardboard. The bridle was made by the fingers of a fairy, noseband, chin-strap and all, in black cotton.

“He has a high action,” said Velvet. “A lovely show canter, but a difficult trot. I didn’t jump him to-day as he needs to settle down.”

In the shell-box other horses lay....

Perhaps if I'd had a shell-box to store them in, I would have been able to save my paper horses, too. 

I thought my chance of having them again was gone until I went to a living estate sale last year, and spotted most of the same set inside a small flat box on a shelf in the garage.  I took one look, gasped, and put the collection in my bag of Horse Stuff To Buy.

The horse I spotted first when I removed the box lid, was a graceful hunter, leaping my choice of two fences:

I didn't realize it at the time, but my set of paper horses had been designed by one of the most esteemed equine artists of the twentieth century, Sam Savitt.  His style is unmistakable.

Each paper horse was doing something different. Here's a plow horse, her driver, and the plow....

A palomino Liberty Horse from the circus, and two polo players complete with detachable mallets....

A mare, a foal, a watering trough, a palomino foal by itself, and a Shetland Pony with a little girl safely sitting in a basket (since she is too small to ride in a saddle)....

Then there was a Standardbred trotter and sulky....

...A Thoroughbred in a full gallop, with detachable jockey.

...Cowboys and bovines.

The last pieces in the old box in the estate sale garage folded together to make a stagecoach.  

The horses and driver from this set were missing. I found them online.  You can see from this page that the horses came with little cardboard stands that slotted into the bases under their hooves. The page showed how the pieces looked when they had been assembled.

During the 1960s paper horses, like model horses, were more about imagination than they were about competition and collection size. The model horse hobby was not nationally or even regionally organized back then.  We played horses by ourselves, or with a handful of other kids who were also defying their parents' wishes that they grow up and start doing "normal" adolescent things -- whatever those things were.  

Even though images of horses permeated popular culture, most of us had dozens, not hundreds or thousands, of model horses, horse books, and related items. They fueled our dreams and provided countless hours of 

For most collectors then, the hobby was reasonably affordable. A punch-out book of paper horses cost less than 50 cents; a model horse could be bought from the five-and-dime store for well under five dollars.  I remember smaller solid color, unfinished Hartlands in a bin with price stickers of 15 cents, Breyers that cost $2 to $4 each, Made In Japan ceramic horses from 29 to 69 cents apiece, and Hagen-Renakers for $1.50 and up. 

To a younger kid back then it was still a lot of money, and we valued our model horses and paper horses as individuals with character. When we finally got a new horse figurine home, it was given a name, a personality, sometimes a pedigree, and relationships with our other model horses. If we staged a model horse show, it was on the bedroom carpet or perhaps in a corner of the backyard (if the weather allowed) with a few friends who lived nearby.  Other collectors in other areas might have been our pen pals.

It's easy to remember the shelf-dwelling equine friends of our childhoods when we lose ourselves again in Bagnold's succinct, mystical prose:

...Velvet’s dreams were blowing about the bed. They were made of cloud but had the shapes of horses. Sometimes she dreamt of bits as women dream of jewellery…. Sometimes she walked down an endless cool alley in summer, by the side of the gutter in the old red- brick floor. On her left and right were open stalls made of dark wood and the buttocks of the bay horses stood like mahogany all the way down. The horses turned their heads to look at her as she walked. They had black manes hanging like silk as the thick necks turned. These dreams blew and played round her bed in the light and the early hours of the morning....

When I look at my set of paper horses, I think of the other little girl who used to own them, and I want to let her know that they are safe, loved, and appreciated here.  

A few years ago I wrote a blog post about equine artist Sam Savitt.You can read it here:


  1. I LOVE THIS (and still value my models as individuals with character!)! Thank you for sharing these AND quoting National Velevet, which is what my mind immediately jumped to. Congratulations on “re-discovering” them!!!

  2. Although I didn't have such commercial paper horses, I certainly made a huge herd of my own. Yes, our first model shows were in the backyard, featuring 'live action' jumping etc. I had a Golden book of horses with stickers that meant much to me, and I believe the artist was Sam Savitt.

    1. Yes, I remember the sticker book too! A friend has a copy of it.

  3. I personally didn't collect the paper horses, I actually never even saw one of these books as a child.

    BUT, I do remember at least once trying to emulate Velvet by pasting a picture of a horse to some thin cardboard and then carefully cutting it out. Unfortunately, I decided that was all too much work and the paper horse project died rather early.

    I only ever owned a small handful of horse books as a child and treasured them all.

    As an adult, I've gone a wee bit nuts trying to collect and read all the horse books I've heard about but didn't have access to way back when, not to mention acquiring old favorites I used to read at my library. They aren't so easy to find now!

    But, as an adult, I'm appreciating the vintage books and the artwork inside them even more. I like going online, trying to find out more about the authors or illustrators, there have definitely been some surprises!

    1. Yes, the world used to be a much more "horsey" place, when kids' books included horse stories by so many great authors/illustrators. Sometimes I can find copies of my old favorites (the ones I basically kept checked out of the school and/or public library for months at a time, renewing them week after week) from online book sellers...although just about anything illustrated by Paul Brown is out of my price range these days! :)